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 Phillips

I was recently accosted in San Francisco by a young woman who wanted me to sign a petition attacking one of the 2012 presidential candidates. But she knew little about the candidate she was opposing or the other candidates. It was evident that she was clueless about the complexities of American politics.

Then a highly intelligent friend told me that he didn’t plan to vote in the 2012 presidential election because none of the candidates were “in touch with the coming revolution,” represented by the anti-Wall Street protests. I said there were great differences among the candidates on many issues, but I think my attempt was fruitless.

This reflects what studies commonly show: Vast ignorance among Americans about our political system and the complexities of political decision-making. Only 24 percent of high school seniors scored at the proficient level on the 2010 National Assessment of Educational Progress on civics.

Schools need to do more to educate young people to become smart, active citizens in our democracy who make educated decisions. This is not about schools training kids to vote for a particular party, or to be conservative or liberal. It is about teaching them to understand the complexities of politics.

The best way to become truly street smart about politics is through experience. To that end, schools should have “political boot camps,” a term I purposely use because politics is a tough business. Boot camp should help kids understand through firsthand experience the classic tension between idealistic and morally driven political motivations and pragmatic politics. Participation in student government rarely does this, since most student governments are focused on planning dances, not on actual governance.

Boot camp could be a whole school project such as a mock political convention. The current Republican presidential candidate contest offers an opportunity for a real-time experience that will give students a fuller understanding of how political campaigns are conducted. Preconvention activities could include rallies, with students playing roles as campaign heads, public relations people, debaters, journalists. A mock convention is an education in itself.

In 2008, Townsend Harris High School in Queens simulated the full election campaign as a major schoolwide activity. As the coordinator noted: “It’s a wonderful lesson in civics for high school student. They become very savvy and critical, because they want to make their vote count. They don’t want to choose someone based on a sound bite.”

Or boot camp could be integrated on a smaller scale as part of the social studies curriculum. The Buck Institute for Education, a leader in project-based learning, has a superb unit entitled “On the Campaign Trail.” Students act as media consultants for a local political campaign and must decide how to best “market” a flawed candidate, given local issues and voter characteristics.

As the unit guidelines say, “Ethical dilemmas arise as students learn about the realities of campaigning for office today, providing the teacher and students with an opportunity to critically examine the U.S. election system.“

These are just a few examples of the many possibilities, with a wealth of resources available on the web, including links to schools holding conventions. There are, too, excellent media resources available. For example, teachers might take a look at Vanessa Roth’s film The Third Monday in October , a film about 11 candidates running for student body president in four middle schools. The elections took place in 2004, but the new edition (available in February) updates this to 2009 with a follow-up on the candidates set against the backdrop of Barack Obama’s inauguration. The film would also be great to show to students as a motivation to get involved in politics.

There are teachers in almost every high school who are capable of beefing up education about our political system. The challenge is in making this a priority in a climate in which test scores in English and math are the priorities and social studies is not. Now is the time to change that.


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