U.S. youths score lowest on U.S. history among all disciplines, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress survey released last week. A distressing 2 percent of high school seniors knew what Brown v. Board of Education was about. Civic apathy is nothing new, but the reports are increasingly dire.
Since the passage of the No Child Left Behind legislation, states and school districts have focused intensely on raising scores in math and reading, too often at the expense of social studies — something Education Secretary Arne Duncan has acknowledged. Overall, only 12 percent of this year’s tested batch were deemed proficient, while the majority of students scored at “a below basic” achievement level. Only one in 10 knew the constitutional tenets of checks and balances and separation of powers, and less than half knew why the framers designed the Bill of Rights.
Clearly, young people are not getting enough education in American history or civics. Half the states, according to the Education Commission of the States, lack any statutory civics assessments.
Two organizations in particular are trying to fight civic illiteracy. The Center for Civic Education has developed a fairly comprehensive curriculum, including activities such as congressional simulations. ICivics, former Supreme Court justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s initiative, has launched colorful virtual games to empower students with knowledge of their government. But there’s no nationally sanctioned curricular framework, and adoption of these voluntary projects has been slow and decentralized. Some school districts, such as one in San Jose, are on the verge of losing civics because of budget cuts.
As states move forward with curriculum and testing reforms, civics should be a priority. Classroom work could be blended with practical learning, perhaps as part of existing community service requirements. While the District, Maryland and Virginia require a baseline government course for high school students, they could up the ante by demanding that every student not only pass a course with an intense written evaluation but also address a local problem with a civic intervention in his or her community.
Some teachers are pushing the envelope to include civic-oriented activities as much as exams, and we salute their experimentation. Civic education for the 21st century, as Justice O’Connor’s project proves, can be lively and no bore. More so than most imagine, we believe interactive civics can be a platform to achieve broad educational goals, including improved reading and analytic skills. In urban centers across the country, there is often a shortage of motivation because students see their real-life situations as disconnected from classroom experiences. Civics, if done right, can be a bridge to progress.