Civics education or, rather, the lack of it
By Joseph Picard
Now, for the high purpose of training an American child to become an American citizen – a constituent part of a self-governing people – Is it not obvious that, in all cases, the law by which he is to be bound should be made intelligible to him?
—Horace Mann, 1845
Do you know how many amendments there are to the U.S. Constitution? Or who wrote the Federalist Papers? How many voting members are there in the House of Representatives? Who is your representative? Name a power the Constitution leaves to the states.
How are you doing? Only 95 more questions to go in the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services civics test given to foreign-born people applying to be U.S. citizens. These people, keen to become part of this great nation and prepared to clear this particular hurdle, do very well on the civics test. With a passing grade of 60, over 97 percent pass.
But when it comes to American citizens taking the test, especially American students, the results are not so good. Frankly, they’re bad. Very bad.
According to the 2014 National Assessment of Educational Progress, only about 25 percent of high school seniors were ‘proficient’ in civics. Between 22 and 23 percent of 8th graders reached ‘proficient’ levels – that is, on a civics test scaled for 8th graders. These assessments were basically unchanged from 2010. The National Assessment of Educational Progress provides the only measurement for civics knowledge that relies on nationwide data. But other, less comprehensive assessments echo the same woeful state of affairs.
A 2010 Pew Research Center poll found that only 14 percent of young adults could name the Speaker of the House, while about 50 percent of older adults could. In a 2012 Xavier University study, one-third of U.S. citizens failed the civics test. When the passing score was hiked from 60 to 70, half failed.
“Education standards for civics have changed and declined over the years,” said Matthew Beck, superintendent of the Andover Regional School District. “Civics has gotten lost in the mix, and that’s not a good thing.”
“Until the 1960s, it was common for American high school students to have three separate courses in civics and government,” Amanda Litvinov wrote earlier this year in a publication of the National Education Association. “But civics offerings were slashed as the curriculum narrowed over the ensuing decades, and lost further ground to ‘core subjects’ under the...standardized testing regime.”
The federal No Child Left Behind law, signed in 2001, mandated standardized English and math testing for grades 4 to 8, and has been blamed for marginalizing a list of other studies, including art, music, foreign languages and, yes, social studies, which is to say history and already marginalized civics.
“It’s not being taught as much anymore,” said Craig Hutcheson, superintendent of the Kittatinny Regional School District. “If it was, I think it could help shed a light on the importance of being knowledgeable of the concepts on which this nation was built.”
“No Child Left Behind did narrow the curriculum, but some of the things it promoted were definitely needed,” Hutcheson said. “To teach higher-order thinking skills and problem solving is beneficial, but students should also be taught what this nation was built upon and how to be a good citizen.”
Both Beck and Hutcheson emphasized the dual nature of a civics education. In one sense, civics teaches how government works, on the local, state and federal levels. Checks and balances, the rule of law, the importance of voting and of knowing who and what you are voting for – this is the kind of civics measured on the USCIS test for would-be citizens.
“But learning civics also means learning to become a good, productive member of society,” Beck said.
“To me, civics means being part of the community, taking pride in your community and working with others to improve it, serving the community,” Hutcheson said. “This is what I see missing nowadays. We have become a self-centered, self-serving society. That concerns me. I don’t know how to turn that around. Re-introducing a civics course may help, but I don’t think that alone will turn this around.”
But there are educators, lawmakers and social activists throughout the country, and in New Jersey, who believe that re-introducing and re-emphasizing civics in the schools is crucial to combatting ignorance and protecting our democracy.
One of the powers the Constitution left to the states is education. State governments decide how their residents are educated, as well as how their schools are funded. Currently, there are two bills in the New Jersey State Assembly’s Education Committee that seek to address the civics problem. One – A-3729, sponsored by Assemblyman Troy Singleton (D-Burlington) and Assemblywoman Joann Downey (D-Monmouth) – would require that a civics course be part of the high school curriculum and that it must be passed to graduate. The other bill – A-3894, sponsored by Assemblyman Jay Webber (R-Essex, Morris, Passaic) and Assemblyman Erik Peterson (R-Hunterdon, Somerset and Warren) – would require high school students to pass a test identical to the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services civics test to graduate.
“We as a people have walked away from the study of civics,” Singleton said. “What we’re seeing as a result is a lack of understanding how our political and governmental systems work, and a lack of participation in the system.”
Singleton said that mandating a civics course as part of the curriculum would ensure that students get “a better, sustainable understanding of how government works.”
He said that such a sustained understanding could have a beneficial effect on our current polarized political landscape.
“Such knowledge could help break down the barriers between us,” Singleton said. “It could help us accept that other people may have different points of view.”
Singleton said that requiring a course in civics, as his bill does, and requiring that a test be passed “are not mutually exclusive.”
“This is a serious issue,” Webber said. “We need to make sure that all our students are civics literate.”
Webber said there is no need to add a course to the curriculum; that civics should be taught as a basic part of the social studies curriculum.
“Teaching civics should be part of the job of teaching social studies and American history,” Webber said. “Shame on the history teacher if his students can’t pass such a test.”
“Many people don’t understand how the Constitution governs the country or how the federal government works,” Peterson said. “That kind of knowledge would help people in the voting booth. People need to understand that as citizens they have responsibilities, like voting, and like knowing how the government works so they vote intelligently.”
The Webber-Peterson bill is similar in design to bills that 23 states have already passed. It is based on the Joe Foss Institute’s Civics Education Initiative.
The knock against the initiative is that it is only a symbolic, placating gesture that will teach nothing sustainable, and will be handled by schools as one more standardized test that will be taught to, simply to move students along.
Lucian Spataro, chief academic officer at the Arizona-based Joe Foss Institute, responded to this line of criticism.
“That notion does not give teachers credit,” Spataro said. “In reality, teachers do not teach to the test. Teachers teach civics and students learn and retain the knowledge. When we’re in the field talking to educators and we hear this criticism, we say check with the states that have enacted the initiative and you will see that civics is being learned and retained.”
Spataro said that, with success in civics testing, a school district can build a civics course for the curriculum and obtain funding for it.
“Civics is not emphasized, in part, because it is not tested,” he said. “First anchor it with testing, then build it into the curriculum. From there, we move on to civic engagement, civic responsibility, debating issues. Civics stops being a second-class subject.”
Spataro said that the initiative aims to bring back to education what the Founding Fathers had in mind – that is, teaching civic virtues to make good, responsible citizens and, thereby, a strong nation.
Certain school districts in Sussex County are attempting to keep civic virtues alive despite no state mandate to teach civics. Principal Thomas Claeys of Lenape Valley Regional High School said his school offers four years of social studies rather than the state-required three years.
“We have thoroughly integrated civics education into our social studies and history courses,” Claeys said. “We also have an AP social studies elective and an honors course in Constitutional law. Our teachers spend a good deal of time on the Revolution and the making of the Constitution, and we tackle what it takes to be a good citizen. I wouldn’t be opposed to having a course solely on civics. But as things stand now, our students are well-informed on the subject and would do well, I think, on a civics test.”
Superintendent Beck explained that the Andover School District, which is K-8, has a program designed to make students responsible, civic-minded members of society.
“We call the program Charger Pride, named for our mascot,” Beck said.
Beck explained that each letter of “Charger Pride” represents a positive character attribute. When a teacher or administrator observes a student displaying one of those character attributes, that student is rewarded. This positive reinforcement builds individual character, Beck said.
“By being acknowledged for going above and beyond in their interactions with others, the students become acquainted with being good, caring, productive citizens,” Beck said.
By the way, there are 27 amendments to the Constitution; James Madison, Alexander Hamilton and John Jay wrote the Federalist Papers; the House has 435 voting members; policing is another power the Constitution left to the states. And if you don’t know your representative, you should.