Civic Education Getting a Reboot
By Tim Walker
Do you know how many justices sit on the U.S. Supreme Court? If you do, you may know more about civics than Rick Perry. In December, then-GOP presidential candidate Perry said it was unwise to have “eight unelected” judges make public policy. For the nation’s longest-serving governor, we should expect more, but what about our students? Should the average 12th- grader know there are nine Supreme Court justices? Most probably don’t, but do they at least have a basic knowledge of the constitutional role of the Court? And if they don’t, does it matter – especially if they score well on reading and math?
The consensus, of course, is that it does, and the Department of Education wants to do something about it. Last month, Secretary Arne Duncan launched a national conversation about the importance of civic education and released a “road map” to help the government, communities and schools reengage young people in the workings of American democracy.
“Giving students a strong foundation in civic values is critical to the vitality of America’s democracy and economy in the 21st century,” Duncan said. “This call to action is an opportunity to develop and improve civic learning as part of a well-rounded education so every student has a sense of citizenship.”
By most accounts, young people know very little about – you name it – the political process, the Bill of Rights, checks and balances, etc. One of the most cited findings is that more teenagers can name the Three Stooges than the three branches of government.
The most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress— commonly known as the Nation’s Report Card — that tests students on “civic knowledge, intellectual and participatory skills, and civic dispositions” offers a mixed outlook. Third graders made gains but 12th-graders actually did worse this time than they did when the test was last given in 2006. Only a quarter of all students scored “proficient” or “advanced” at all grade levels.
Dig a little deeper into the NAEP data and you’ll also find a persistent racial gap in the scores. Performance by Black students declined, and, although Hispanics made gains in relation to Whites, the gap is still wide.
Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Philadelphia-based Annenberg Public Policy Center says that while there is “a base level of knowledge that is out there, it’s a lot baser than some would like.”
The DOE’s road map, called Advancing Civic Learning and Engagement in Democracy, identifies nine specific steps it plans to take to advance civic education – including leveraging public private partnerships, encouraging public service careers among college graduates, supporting civic learning for a well-rounded curriculum, and funding more research into what really works. (For details, read the complete proposal)
These are encouraging steps but, as Duncan and former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor have pointed out, all the funding and renewed commitment won’t amount to much if the result still resembles your “grandmothers civics.” Instead, civic education has to leverage technology and social networking to create a more action-orientated approach over, for example, just memorizing names, dates and places (and how many justices sit on the Supreme Court).
O’Connor has been on a mission to promote civic engagement since she retired from the bench more than ten years ago. In 2009, she founded iCivics, which offers web-based projects aimed at teaching middle school students about the workings of the court and the Constitution. The site includes detailed lesson plans for teachers, as well as computer games that students can play independently.
As the 2012 election season heats up, O’Connor has been talking up iCivics around the country. Speaking to students, she denounces the “lack of public knowledge” she says is fostered by presidential candidates who have targeted federal judges in their stump speeches and the widespread misinformation populated on the Internet.
But the web is also the platform where students are debating ideas about what’s going on in their communities and their country.
“Thankfully, the Internet can be leveraged to update civics education in the digital age,” Duncan and O’Connor recently wrote. “Inside and outside the classroom, civics education needs to become more engaging and interactive. Twenty-first century civics education must not only be more hands-on, it also must meet students where they are—and where they are is online.”