Here’s some news to make you feel better about America. In 2010 only 20% of 8th graders were rated as proficient in civics. Just to really brighten your day, a significant plurality of millennials say they are “ready for Hillary” and yet 77% of them can’t name either of their home state Senators. 97% of naturalized citizens can pass (and frequently do very well on) the citizenship test they had to take to complete the process. The number of native born Americans who can say the same is… rather dismal.
With all of that in mind, should we start making it mandatory for students in high school to have to be able to pass a basic citizenship / civics test before we unleash them on the world? A recent editorial at USA Today seems to think that’s the answer.
[A] decision last month by Arizona and North Dakota to require high school students to pass that same 100-question test to graduate is a welcome acknowledgment of the problem.
Like just about everything else in education, however, their simple idea is becoming contentious. It is under attack as yet another test-prep intrusion on education that could prompt schools to dumb down civics education — if that’s possible.
Students used to master the basic workings of government in grade school. But in the past 20 years, civics has been eclipsed by a focus on reading, math and science, made even more intense by the No Child Left Behind law, which mandated annual tests in these subjects.
Fortunately, an eclectic group of leaders from government, education and the arts, including retired Supreme Court justice Sandra Day O’Connor, has championed a return to civics. They’re making progress. Today, almost all states require civics classes in high school. About half the states already test students on civics or social studies.
Peter Levine offered an opposing point of view which argues that if you allow the federal government to mandate a test, then teachers will simply teach the test and abandon any extensive examination of the subject of civics. It could also lead to these same teachers seeing a deeper exploration of the subject as it relates to current events of the day as a waste of time and actually teach less than they were before.
If I fail to see an immediate remedy to the problem in either of these opinions it’s simply because the only option being offered involves the federal government fixing every school’s problems with a single stroke. What could possibly go wrong?
It would be nice if all of the people who vote for our elected officials knew at least as much about the operation of their government and some fundamental facts of American history as those who seek to be naturalized. In fact, it’s rather frightening that so many do not. But nationally standardized curriculum and tests have never seemed to be the answer because we’re seeking to solve the wrong problem. If you give teachers an excuse to simply churn out cookie cutter students like a product which meets Washington specifications, the results are rather predictable. The problem isn’t what’s on the test… it’s failing teachers, schools which lack in any depth of purpose or dedication to the future of their charges and – perhaps most tragically – parents who fail to get involved.
I agree that the statistics linked above are a problem. Uninformed voters make bad choices. But a one size fits all solution isn’t going to help anything. This is yet another area which will only see true improvement through solutions which start at the grassroots level and empower parents to take an active role in shaping the future of their kids. I’m willing to bet that a lot more home school kids would pass that test than public school students these days. That sort of achievement could be transferred over to the public schools with enough interest by the people who really matter.