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Whatever Happened to Civics Education?

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By David H. Folz and Cameron Dodd
October 31, 2014

What on earth is going on here? Can the litany of government scandals that seem to erupt weekly have anything to do with the lack of training in the foundational values and principles of the republic?

Just a few of the things that are not supposed to occur in a government administered by competent, ethically aware and professionally trained leaders sensitive to the first principles of a constitutional system include:

  • Veterans Affairs hospitals that delay or deny health care to thousands of combat veterans.
  • Internal Revenue Service targeting conservatives and other groups and then “losing” relevant records that may incriminate government officials.
  • Executive orders that exempt or defer selected groups from various provisions of federal health care laws.
  • Selective enforcement and non-enforcement of federal immigration laws.
  • Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives scheme that allows illegal straw buyers to acquire thousands of firearms, some of which are linked to later killings of Mexican civilians and a U.S. border patrol agent.
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention loss of credibility with every news conference about Ebola.

Such events inflict incalculable damage to public trust and contribute to a growing social capital deficit. National polls record historic lows in popular trust for all three branches of the federal government. Only about a fourth of likely voters think the country is heading in the right direction and most Americans (64 percent) remain highly pessimistic about what lies ahead for the nation’s children.

So how did we reach this point and what, if anything might be done to reverse the decline in social capital?

American civic education might be one arena for possible answers. While corruption and abuses of government power are nothing new, their frequency and damage to the body politic seem to parallel the decline of civic education in American classrooms. When individuals do not understand their duties and responsibilities as citizens or know-how to participate in governmental processes, then there will be trouble, as Ben Franklin noted, in keeping the Republic. If Franklin was right, the nation may be reaping exactly the quality of governance that has been sown by the benign attention to, or outright neglect of, civics education.

There is abundant evidence of an abysmally low level of understanding of the constitution, our system of government, and American history in general. The last national civics assessment was administered in 2010 and showed:

  • Two-thirds of students scored below “proficient.”
  • Less than half of eighth graders knew the purpose of the Bill of Rights.
  • Only one in 10 had age appropriate knowledge of the system of checks and balances between the three branches.

Scores on the 2010 exam were even lower for low-income and minority students; a civic achievement gap undermines the value of equality. Previous assessments conducted in 2006 and 1998 showed similar results.

If these results reflect the quality of civics education, the problem has been in the making for a long time. Up until the 1960s, “three courses in civics and government were common in American high schools. Two of them explored the role of citizens and encouraged students to discuss current issues. Today, those courses are very rare. What remains is a course on ‘American government’ that usually spends little time on how people can – and why they should – participate as citizens.According to Hirsch in The Making of America, the genesis for the diminished course work in civics may have its roots in the “anti-curriculum movement” that shunned a common core in favor of a child-centered approach.

It is not surprising that a lack of knowledge about the basics of American democracy exists. Survey findings from the Annenberg Public Policy Center indicates that millions of citizens lack “the wherewithal to make sense of our system of government” and that:

  • Only one-third of Americans could name all three branches of government while one-third couldn’t name any.
  • Over a third thought that the Founding Fathers intended for each branch to hold a lot of power with the president having the final say.
  • Less than half of Americans (47 percent) knew that a 5-4 decision by the Supreme Court carries the same legal weight as a 9-0 ruling.

Smeltzer octMany Americans profess, or at least did when the question was asked in surveys from 1968 through 2000 that the “civic mission of schools is an essential—if not the essential—purpose of education.” The centrality of a civic mission appears dubious in light of the recent focus on training and testing in STEM courses. Emphasis on science, technology and math is laudable, but the risk of concentrating resources on STEM courses to the exclusion of civics is that schools risk graduating a technically proficient and employable population, but one that is likely easy prey for political demagogues. The price for allowing civic education to wander in the curricular wilderness may be far higher than many fully appreciate.

As of 2012, eight states had standardized tests in high school specifically in civics and U.S. government, but few attached consequences for failure to pass these tests. The path toward re-vitalization of civics education is fraught with the usual conflicts in education about what should be taught, how it should be taught, who should do the teaching and how proficiency in the subject should be evaluated.

Two states, Florida and Tennessee appear to be at the forefront of innovative but very different approaches to revitalizing civics education. Florida developed a semester-long middle school civics class and a statewide multiple choice civics test that comprises 30 percent of an overall course grade in a class that must be passed to advance to high school. This exam is a computer-based multiple choice test with questions divided equally among four categories:

  1. The origins and purposes of law and government.
  2. The roles, rights and responsibilities of citizens.
  3. Governmental policies and processes.
  4. Organizations and functions of government.

Student performance on the civics exam counts for 10 percent to 12 percent of a middle school’s overall grade. The incentive for schools is that higher grades may result in more state funds, while failing grades can trigger staff turnover or school closures.

Tennessee’s approach, the first of its kind in the U.S., employs project-based exercises rather than standardized tests to assess students’ learning about civics. The state’s 2012 legislation authorized individual school districts to develop a “project-based assessment in civics” that would be administered at least once in grades 4 thru 8, and at least once again in grades 9 thru 12. Project-based” means a more hands-on, practical approach to learning in which students study real-life problems or issues and then work to develop solutions that could actually be used to address the issues they are studying.Assessments of these projects should be “designed to measure the civics learning objectives contained in the social studies curriculum and to demonstrate understanding and relevance of public policy, the structure of federal, state and local governments, and both the Tennessee and the United States constitutions.Both states implemented their respective programs during the 2013-14 school year, so evaluation results are not yet available.

Preparing students to be informed, engaged and productive citizens is a seminal function of public education. Many studies have documented the strong positive relationship between the quality and quantity of active civic learning opportunities in public schools and students’ commitment to civic and political engagement. Today, the civics education mission of public schools is probably more vital than ever if we want to stem the deficit in U.S. social capital and attract the type of individuals to public service that we need, rather than the type that we may deserve.

Author: David H. Folz is professor and director of the Master of Public Policy and Administration Program at the University of Tennessee, Howard Baker Jr. Center for Public Policy, where he teaches courses in public management, financial administration, research methods and state politics. His research on state and local government policies and performance has appeared in numerous journals in public administration. Folz can be reached at [email protected].

Author: Cameron Dodd is a graduate student in the Masters of Public Policy and Administration program at the University of Tennessee (UT). He will be graduating in December 2014 and is pursuing a career in state or local government. While a student, he has served as a graduate assistant for the Institute for Public Service (IPS), located on UT’s campus. IPS provides consulting services to local governments and businesses across Tennessee. Dodd can be reached at [email protected].

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