Civics Education, Our Children, and the Current State of Politics

Is low voter turn-out, a challenged newspaper business, and general lack of interest in the current state of politics in any way related to failed civics and history education in the schools? Could the argument be made that the election of President Trump, with an historic lack of voter participation (the lowest in two decades), is related to such failings?
Dianna Terrell, Ph.D., professor of education at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, New Hampshire, makes the argument that programs like No ChildLeft Behind with their hyper focus on math, reading and high stakes testing, have, in some measure, paved the way for less time spent on historic and civic education.
“Something had to give, and this meant many schools devoted disproportionate amounts of instructional time to those subjects, to the detriment of social studies and the arts (and even recess),” Dr. Terrell writes in her blog, Schooling Our Kids:
I will acknowledge that civic and historic literacy is rising, according to the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP). NAEP testing indicates that the percentage of children scoring at or above the “proficient” category in history rose significantly since 1994. Score gains for Hispanic-American eighth graders have narrowed what was once an intractable “achievement gap” by 14 percentage points since 1998.
BUT, there is not yet reason to celebrate. There is still vast room for improvement in civic and historical awareness among our children and adolescents. While the average scores on civic knowledge nationwide are consistently well above the “basic” level, only 23% of our nation’s children score in the proficient or advanced range.

While there is a problem, there are solutions. And historically, we haven’t lost ground as many would like to believe. There has simply never been a “golden era” of historical knowledge, which may bea bitter pill to swallow for college educated Baby Boomers and those from the Greatest Generation. But, these are the facts. It’s likely that rather than our kids getting dumber, the nature of knowledge, the patterns of behavior, and the skills of engagement look differently when viewed through the generational lens.

We need to stop asking why our kids don’t know “basic facts” and begin to ask how we can transfer our children’s abundant talents and passions for other subjects into history and civics. We have an excellent foundation to make this happen; it’s a matter of framing the challenge appropriately and directing our energy for positive change.
See, for example, a U.S. News & World Report article headlined,  “Donald Trump’s Election is Civic Education’s Gut-Check,” which makes the case that most civics teachers’ lack of content expertise is to blame. The author goes on to claim (without providing any numbers to substantiate the claim) that civics teachers are all primarily athletic coaches.
Instead of shaming students and their teachers for what they don’t know, we might focus on the many successes in our education system that reflect the demanding work and dedication of our public teaching force. When looking for outliers and success stories, it’s easy to identify high-leverage, promising practices that yield results and use that to our advantage for teaching children how to engage.
Nationwide scores are improving in math and literacy. Some academics and researchers have credited the shift to the Common Core State Standards, and the massive push in professional development and training for teachers to support it – as the underlying cause.
What Civics and Social Studies advocates must do is leverage the social studies literacy standards embedded in the Common Core State Standards to assure that more time is spent in these areas including non-fiction “informational text” literacy and writing. Informing oneself is a civic virtue and connecting these dots takes very little effort.
There’s no hard evidence that a lack of voter participation and general apathy is responsible for our current travails, but there is no doubt that a better-educated populace, especially regarding current events and government, would help.
Dianna Terrell, Ph.D. is associate professor of education at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, NH. She is also a mother and blogger who writes on the state of education in New Hampshire and the U.S. Dr. Terrell is secretary for the New Hampshire Institutes of Higher Education Network.
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