This was written by Mark Phillips, professor emeritus of secondary education at San Francisco State University and author of a monthly column on education for the Marin Independent Journal.

By Mark Phillipps

Media responses to educational reports have become predictably semi-hysterical, simplistic, and taken to invalid conclusions. So it was with the recent report from the Department of Education: The Nation’s Report Card, Civics 2010.

The scores were poor, particularly for 12th graders, with only 24% assessed as proficient. Knowledge deficiencies related to the constitution, civil rights, immigration laws, and our court system, were among those identified.

Of course this is not good news and indicates a problem that needs to be addressed. But Henny Penny “the sky is falling” headlines and stories screaming, “Kids Don’t Know Democracy,” followed by still more finger-pointing at the failure of our educational system, have become part of the problem.

Let’s be rationale about this.

First, the test items themselves should be viewed with skepticism.

For example, is the ability to name each of the amendments to the Constitution and our major Civil Rights laws as important as understanding the complexities of our economic system and the intricacies of presidential decision-making?

Two of the primary attributed “causes” to the low scores should also be viewed skeptically.

While the recent mania regarding math and verbal standardized test scores has sometimes demoted social studies, requirements haven’t been lowered in most states and districts. Importantly too, while the test results continue to show the expected cultural/racial gaps, the study also shows that these gaps have narrowed over the past four years. There is also no evidence that the quality of social studies teaching has declined.

Still, there are implications for social studies education.

The primary challenge for schools regarding social studies relates to compensating for social factors that diminish knowledge and engagement in our political system.

Television is our most powerful educator. By the time students graduate high school, most have clocked more time in front of a TV set than in classrooms. Two of the primary effects of television news as related to social studies are its creation of disillusionment regarding politics and its continual distortion of information. It miseducates.

Fox News commentators, for example, have represented the health care reform bill as unconstitutional and perpetuated the falsehood that individuals without health insurance could be sent to prison.

On a number of networks, President Obama has been directly or indirectly blamed for the deadlock in Congress, his powers continually misrepresented, and the complexities of presidential decision-making almost never explained.

Students continually learn that there is no reason to inherently respect political leaders. Even if not shown to be blatantly immoral, television likes to show these leaders making blatantly stupid comments, demonstrating a lack of courage, and acting with blind obedience to a party line. Few are shown with even a modicum of integrity or dignity.

And the information regarding corruption in our financial system is even more depressing. Students are disillusioned and more invested in the satire of Jon Stewart than in trusting either the news or politics.

Why should they want to learn more about our political and economic systems? Why should they care about the Constitution? And why should we expect them to have any faith in their power to affect change?

Finally, students are routinely excluded from any governance roles. Student government is a standing joke, and students are not included in any meaningful way in school decision-making processes or the politics of schools and school boards.

The implications for social studies education are daunting. Students’ sense of empowerment can be enhanced by increased knowledge and skills, but must also include opportunities to actively apply them. Project-based social studies education that gives students simulated experience with politics and economics can help. A focus on deconstructing television news and providing an ongoing corrective to its miseducation, is critical. School policy changes that involve students in the governance of schools and in community projects would help teach hands-on social studies.

Once again teachers face the challenge of overcoming obstacles created by dysfunctional cultural habits and norms.

And, by the way, how well do you think most adults would score on these civics tests? The answer is a no-brainer!


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