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By Jason Giersch
August 21, 2015
As states toss out their copies of the Common Core standards and replace them with their own, it is the right time to discuss increasing the attention that our schools give to civics education. That discussion might start with ideas regarding desired outcomes, such as voter turnout, civil discourse and knowledge of the American democratic process and institutions.
With those in mind, the question turns toward how to achieve them. What should teachers and students do in the classroom to produce citizens ready to engage with each other, the media, candidates and the government in constructive and competent ways? How do we teach people about the relationship between private citizens and public servants to produce better interactions between the two?
The Common Core standards do little to pursue these goals. With their clear emphasis on math and English content, the standards make a brief reference to the roles that reasoning and discussions play in the democratic process and require students to analyze the Declaration of Independence, the preamble of the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address. That analysis, however, includes only the documents’ themes, purposes and rhetorical devices, not how those documents apply to the demands and opportunities for modern American citizens (see criticisms like the one by education journalist Strauss). Teachers and schools decide on their own whether students will engage personally or deeply with the content and meanings of these documents and apply them to current civic issues.
That handful of founding documents is rich with possibilities for higher-order thinking activities. Using Bloom’s taxonomy as a guide, skillful teachers can guide students through analysis, synthesis and evaluation of American ideals and tradition. Students can tackle big questions of civic life, such as striking a balance between public and private interests, as they move through the texts.
Of course, if civic education is not an emphasis in the state standards, few teachers will devote time to these issues. Teacher evaluations are increasingly based on test results and test items are increasingly narrowed to match standards, whether they are from the Common Core or some other source. If standards do not emphasize civic education, it is unlikely that instruction will include little of it.
According to recent surveys such as the one conducted by EducationNext in 2014, Americans still support the idea of national standards but have soured on the Common Core, most likely as a result of political wrangling over state versus federal control over education. In the first round of Republican presidential debates leading to the 2016 election, only Jeb Bush voiced support for the Common Core, but did so in a manner that seemed more apologetic than enthusiastic. Democrats, including Clinton and Sanders, have been more supportive of Common Core standards.
All proposals for standards, whether national or state-based, emphasize reading and math. Beyond those subjects, writing and science get some attention, followed by history. According to an analysis by Circle, The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, the majority of states have no requirement for schools to assess students in the area of civic education. For those of us who would like to see the topic brought back into the spotlight, the slide in popularity of the Common Core may be an opportunity to make it happen.
Circle’s website offers not only research about the correlations between civics instruction and civic participation but also argues for states to make civic education part of the evaluation formula of school performance (only eight states currently do so). Civic knowledge, however, is not the focus of Circle’s campaign. The organization gives greater em
phasis to the teaching of civic skills than of civic knowledge; their research suggests that knowledge does little to increase participation while skills are the key to getting young people involved.
The Center for Civics Education (CCE) also advocates for the teaching of civic skills and divides them into two categories: intellectual and participatory. The former includes academic practices such as describing and evaluating while the latter includes monitoring, interacting and influencing. Their prescription for a thorough civic education goes far beyond the reading and analyzing of four documents from hundreds of years ago.
Groups that address social studies more broadly want to see greater emphasis on civic education. The National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS), for example, made “Civic Ideals and Practices” one of the 10 themes within their recommended standards. According to NCSS, each level of K-12 education should include lessons in civic participation.
Groups like these need to unite with other advocates of civic education and take action. By changing the conversation in education policy from “Common Core or no Common Core” to “Let’s offer something better than the Common Core,” The cause of civic education stands to make a substantial step forward.
Author: Jason Giersch, Ph.D. is an assistant professor in the department of political science and public administration at The University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Email: [email protected]