We frequently measure schools by how well children do in math and English and science. But schools serve another function we must not ignore — preparing children to become responsible citizens in a democracy.
We are living through a time when the direction of our democracy is debated almost daily. Are we preparing children to understand today’s issues?
Are we flunking democracy?
Here is the question of the day: Are we flunking democracy? Note that I did not ask “Are our schools flunking democracy?” The question is whether we are flunking democracy. When it comes to teaching each new generation about our roles as citizens, both schools and parents play an important role.
So how are we doing?
Civic knowledge. The results of the Nation’s Report Card 2014 test of civic knowledge are not reassuring. Most 8th grade students did not meet proficiency levels.
About half of students who sign up for the AP US Government exam bomb it, with a score of 1 or 2 out of 5.
Civic participation. The United States trails most developed nations in voter turnout. In California’s recent gubernatorial primary election voter turnout was terrible. Only about one in three voted, with large variations by county.
Civility. The tone of the national dialog about civic choices has become toxic, threatening our ability to work together as citizens for the common good.
The decline in civics education has not gone unnoticed. There is now a national effort to re-invigorate civic learning. (Timely? Yes!)
Done right, civic education is not just about passing a test on the Constitution in the 12th grade. It is about learning through experience how to help improve our communities, how to analyze problems, and how to work with others for the common good.
For a look at this in practice, think about how students in Parkland reacted to the horrific shooting on their campus. They modeled real civics in action. It was not serendipity. Florida has one of the most comprehensive Civics education programs in the nation according to a state profile by the Education Commission of the States: This includes “being able to identify how students can help improve their school and community (grade 1), evaluating the importance of civic responsibilities in American democracy (grade 5) and analyzing public policy solutions or courses of action to resolve a local, state, or federal issue (high school)”.
California has doubled down on improving civics education, starting in kindergarten. Leaving this vital function of education to a single class at the end of high school just doesn’t cut it.
New Framework = Opportunity for Change
California’s new History-Social Science/Civics framework changes how civics should be taught, with a huge emphasis on active learning. Yes, content is important. But so is analysis, debate, the ability to tell fake news from real news, and providing opportunities to identify problems and create solutions. Take a look at one example of what the new civics learning looks like:
Several additional initiatives are underway to improve civic education. The Civic Learning Awards at elementary and secondary schools celebrate civic learning and identify successful models. Civic Learning Partnerships join the courts, schools and business in developing a civic learning plan for local communities. Check here to see what is happening where you live and how to start one in your community.
The Student Votes Campaign encourages students to register and vote. Here are some resources you can use:
Dare I ask? Before the recent election, did you discuss any issues on the ballot with your children? Elections affect them, too. Was there a parcel tax or a bond issue to support your schools? Did you take your children with you to vote? On the day of election, did you wear the “I voted” sticker to show your kids you went to the polls and were proud of it? You did vote, right? Have you spent any time with the kids talking about the issues of the day?
You are the role model for your children. Research confirms that your involvement has a significant impact. If kids know you value something it will rub off on them.
You also play an important role in keeping an eye on what is happening at your school.
Your PTA can help jump start a discussion on civic education. Work with your principal to set up an event to help your school community understand what’s happening at your school. What are the activities? How are children learning?
Below are some questions you can use from the ECS Guidebook of Six Proven Practices of Effective Civics Education.
Tips to Start the Conversation
1. Are students participating in school governance?
2. What opportunities are available for service learning? That means a learning experience that is linked to a classroom lesson. For example, a recycling program linked to environmental studies or a school garden linked to a science curriculum.
3. Do students participate in simulated voting, trials, legislative deliberation, or diplomacy?
4. Are there discussions of current events and issues that affect students’ lives?
5. Are there extracurricular activities that give students a chance to get involved and work together toward a common goal?
6. Does classroom instruction combine formal lessons with illustrations and discussions that link the lessons to what is happening in today’s world?
Can You Pass the Test for New Citizens?
While good citizenship is about a lot more than passing a test, knowing about our history and our constitution is important. New citizens have to pass a test. Can you?
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