Preparation for active citizenship not on education agenda

Original Reporting | By Diana Jean Schemo |

Across the country, only about half the states test high school students in social studies or government (related fields in which fragments of civics turn up), according to the Education Commission of the States, a non-profit that tracks state practices. An even smaller number tests students in citizen education. The most recent results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress in civics suggest that roughly three in four high school seniors were not “proficient” in civics, and one third lack even rudimentary knowledge. That means three in four could not apply a constitutional principle to a hypothetical scenario, and did not know that state law must cede to federal law when the two conflict.

“We are really embracing an incredibly impoverished notion of education,” said Frederick M. Hess of American Enterprise Institute.

 A recent survey of high school history and social studies teachers, commissioned by the conservative American Enterprise Institute, found that only 24 percent are “very confident” that their students could cite the protections of the Bill of Rights by graduation, and only 15 percent are very confident that their students understand federalism and the separation of powers.  

“As the tangible economic benefits of schooling have become central to policy thinking, the teaching of citizenship has become increasingly peripheral,” the report said.

“Americans have entered the twenty-first century, an epoch punctuated by debates over immigration, religious tolerance, and the role of government, with their schools devoting remarkably little attention to the formation of sound democratic citizens,” the American Enterprise report added. “A focus on academic performance, along with concerns about provoking controversy, have in many places demoted talk of citizenship to assemblies, ceremonies, or the occasional social studies lesson.”

“The public agenda”

From the “National Standards for Civics and Government” of the Center for Civic Education:

Students should be able to evaluate, take, and defend positions about how the public agenda is set.

To achieve this standard, should be able to

  • explain that the “public agenda” consists of those matters that occupy public attention at any particular time, e.g., crime, health care, education, abortion, national debt, environmental protection, international intervention
  • describe how the public agenda is shaped by political leaders, political institutions, political parties, interest groups, the media, individual citizens
  • explain how individuals can help to shape the public agenda, e.g., joining interest groups or political parties, making presentations at public meetings, writing letters to newspapers and government officials
  • explain why issues important to some groups and the nation do not become part of the public agenda.

In an interview, Frederick M. Hess, American Enterprise’s policy expert on schools and an author of the report, said he had been decrying the inattention to civics for the last 10 years. But over that time, education advocates — himself included — were more consistently attacking public schools for deficiencies in math and reading, shifting the “center of gravity” in policy discussions toward measuring performance on a narrow set of measures.  “We saw this wholesale shift in focus toward numeracy and literacy that was in one sense laudable and appropriate, but rather than wrestle with the implications of that, we tended to turn a blind eye to them,” Hess said.

The current mantra in advocacy circles, that students should emerge “college and career ready,” redefines education as a “private good: are we preparing this student to go to college or get a job?” Hess said.  As a consequence, advocates are largely divorcing education from its historic role of instructing young people for citizenship.

“We are really embracing an incredibly impoverished notion of education,” Hess said.

To press its case, American Enterprise hoped to persuade a handful of  “trend setter” charter schools to embrace citizenship education.  Doesn’t that strategy effectively bypass the 97 percent of public school students who don’t attend charter schools?  Hess said that in this case, he was skeptical of attempting grand changes. “Actually trying to move systems, with their competing factions and conflicting demands, is an incredibly muddy, incremental process,” Hess said.  Charters, he argued, have the agility to “modify their cultures” quickly. 

Susan Ohanian, author of “Why is Corporate America Bashing Our Public Schools,” and an early and irrepressible critic of the standards and accountability movement, hesitated when asked why she never spoke up about the eclipse of civics in the classroom.

“I can’t even answer it,” she said. “We really are missing the boat if we don’t educate kids to be members of the community. That’s a really good point.”

Ohanian interpreted civics as a subject aimed at instilling pride and patriotism, and confessed mixed feelings about banging that drum. “I really believe our society is corrupt and there’s such a gap between rich and poor,” she said. “If we don’t solve that, we can’t solve anything else in education. How do you tell a poor high schooler to be a good citizen in this kind of society? It’s kind of hypocritical.”

Asked about teaching civics not as an avenue to boosterism, but to political awareness, Ohanian said, “Quite frankly, I think it’s probably piling too much on teachers, because by and large, teachers are pretty conservative. Teachers, by and large, teach the way they were taught. A more radical perspective would be difficult.”

 McFarland, of the National Council for the Social Studies, rejected the notion that civics is somehow not for students in poverty. “It’s not that we have a perfect country, and everything is fine for every person, but to me our standards represent a laying out of the opportunity to learn, and the opportunity to be engaged and involved. And those opportunities should be available to all students, regardless of whether they’re students in privileged situations or in underprivileged situations. It’s about increasing the efficacy of students, and giving them the knowledge and the tools to make a difference.”

Cathy Corbo, president of the Albany Teacher’s Union, maintained that teachers had their hands full in New York State with the current raft of academic requirements. Why would they demand yet more?

“It’s already a full boat, in terms of getting kids through high school. In urban areas, we’re struggling already with graduation rates that are not acceptable. And a lot of that has to do with the rigor of what people need to do to graduate. Adding something else would probably be a bit of a burden, unless you’re going to pull something else off.”

To a large extent, Corbo said, teachers teach whatever the state curriculum requires. A Baby Boomer herself, Corbo said today’s new teachers lack the political fire of her generation at a similar age. Corbo’s generation famously marched for civil rights and against the Vietnam War. It joined sit-ins up north to end Jim Crow segregation down south.

Did she think that the apathy of today’s young teachers was related to a lack of education for their roles as citizens when they were students?

Corbo said she was not sure. “When they do protest, it is usually over something related to their working conditions.” They worry about the rise of charter schools, which, she said, siphon students away from neighborhood schools only to send them back when problems arise.

I asked Corbo whether she thought it had any direct impact on her and her colleagues when students graduate and become voters unequipped with the tools to evaluate claims and counterclaims in the political arena.

“I guess I’m sure it does,” Corbo said, and paused a moment, before adding, “civics has never come up as an issue.”

“Civic Ideals and Practices”

From the curriculum framework of the National Council for the Social Studies:

Social studies programs should include experiences that provide for the study of the ideals, principles, and practices of citizenship in a democratic republic…

[Among the “processes” for high school students, learners will be able to]:

  • Ask and find answers to questions about how to become informed and take civic action;
  • Compare and contrast the roles of citizen in various forms of government past and present;
  • Identify examples of civic ideals and practices throughout history and in a variety of cultural settings;
  • Research primary and secondary sources to make decisions and propose solutions to selected civic issues in the past and present;
  • Identify assumptions, misconceptions, and biases in sources, evidence and arguments used in presenting issues and positions;
  • Identify, seek, describe, and evaluate multiple points of view about selected issues, noting the strengths, weakneses, and consequences associated with holding each position;
  • Develop a position on a public policy issue and defend it with evidence;
  • Evaluate the effectiveness and importance of public opinion in influencing and shaping public policy development and decision-making;
  • Evaluate the degree to which public policies and citizen behaviors reflect or foster their stated civic ideals;
  • Participate in the process of persuading, compromising, debating, and negotiating in the resolution of conflicts and differences.
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