reforming civic education

In lieu of a substantive blog post here today, I’d like to invite people to read my Huffington Post essay entitled “What We Need to Do About Civic Education” (and, if you are so moved, to like it or share it there, because that boosts its placement.) The HuffPost also ran a news article on our research entitled “Civics Education Testing Only Required In 9 States For High School Graduation: CIRCLE Study.”

I begin my piece:

Whether and how well we teach civics are important questions, especially in the midst of an election campaign in which millions of Americans are being asked to sort through complicated issues and navigate an increasingly difficult voting process.

We found recently that 68 percent of young people didn’t know whether their state required a photo ID to vote, and 80 percent of the young people didn’t know their state’s early registration rules. Other news reports have raised the question of whether citizens understand broader issues. In the New York Times online (Sept. 23), Thomas B. Edsall quoted a Romney supporter who explained why President Obama might win that state: “People are stupid. … [Governments] eliminated civics from our curriculum. The students don’t know about civics, they don’t know about our history, our government, our constitution.”

I note that, contrary to popular belief, states do still require some civics. But the civics course comes late–often just one semester in senior year of high school–and the content isĀ  not aligned to worthwhile tests or assessments.

That means that a student preparing for a civics test (if there is a test) may have to memorize how many votes it takes to overcome a veto or which house of Congress must originate revenue bills. That is useful information if you want to assess a president or influence Congress, but it has no value if it is simply stored in short-term memory and the student doesn’t see how to apply it. A multiple-choice exam is a poor tool for assessing advanced knowledge or the application of knowledge to complex situations, let alone students’ abilities to work together in groups.

Many states make lofty statements about civic skills and virtues in their standards (which are official regulations), but since the standards are unaligned with assessments, they mean little.