Civics lessons lack­ing in schools

Daily Freeman (Kingston, NY) - - OPINION - Es­ther J. Cepeda Columnist Es­ther Cepeda is syn­di­cated by The Wash­ing­ton Post Writ­ers Group.

It hardly seems pos­si­ble, but it’s hap­pen­ing: Stu­dents have got­ten so fed up that they’ve re­sorted to le­gal ac­tion to get the ed­u­ca­tion they need to be­come pro­duc­tive cit­i­zens.

As The As­so­ci­ated Press re­ported last week, a group of pub­lic school stu­dents and their par­ents filed a class-ac­tion law­suit against Rhode Is­land’s gover­nor and the state’s ed­u­ca­tion of­fi­cials, claim­ing that the state fails to pre­pare young peo­ple to fully par­tic­i­pate in civic life.

The stu­dents are ask­ing the fed­eral courts to con­firm the con­sti­tu­tional rights of all pub­lic-school stu­dents to a civics ed­u­ca­tion that ad­e­quately pre­pares them to vote, ex­er­cise free speech, pe­ti­tion the gov­ern­ment, serve on a jury, write a let­ter to a news­pa­per’s ed­i­tor, par­tic­i­pate in a mock trial or other­wise ac­tively en­gage in their com­mu­ni­ties.

Musah Mo­hammed Se­say, a high school se­nior and co-plain­tiff in the suit, told the AP that he hasn’t been ex­posed to the ba­sics of how lo­cal gov­ern­ment works or how de­ci­sion-mak­ers are held ac­count­able by the cit­i­zens they gov­ern.

It’s a sad scene. Rhode Is­land doesn’t have a civics-ed­u­ca­tion re­quire­ment, doesn’t re­quire teach­ers to be trained in civics, and doesn’t test stu­dents on their knowl­edge of civics and Amer­i­can his­tory, ac­cord­ing to Michael Re­bell, a lead coun­sel in the case and a pro­fes­sor of law and ed­u­ca­tional prac­tice at Teach­ers Col­lege, Columbia Univer­sity in New York, who was in­ter­viewed by the Prov­i­dence Jour­nal.

Re­bell said that the skill set is so low on the state’s ed­u­ca­tional radar that the po­si­tion of so­cialscience co­or­di­na­tor within the Rhode Is­land Depart­ment of Ed­u­ca­tion has been va­cant for six months.

The depart­ment coun­ters that it re­quires three years of his­tory/so­cial stud­ies to grad­u­ate from high school, and that it has grade-level stan­dards that specif­i­cally talk about civics. But hav­ing stan­dards on the books is one thing. En­sur­ing that ed­u­ca­tors are knowl­edge­able enough to teach the sub­ject and then hav­ing an as­sess­ment in place to gauge how well the stu­dents learned it is quite an­other.

The Rhode Is­land suit, which could go as far as the Supreme Court, is not the only in­stance of stu­dents de­mand­ing that their ed­u­ca­tion meet the most ba­sic stan­dards of use­ful­ness in the real world.

In Novem­ber, stu­dents in Low­ell, Mass., notched a vic­tory. Af­ter a nine-year ad­vo­cacy cam­paign, they suc­ceeded in push­ing for a law re­quir­ing the state to strengthen civics-ed­u­ca­tion re­quire­ments. The law man­dates that Amer­i­can his­tory, so­cial sci­ences and civics be taught in pub­lic schools. It also re­quires the schools to im­ple­ment stu­dent-led civics projects for chil­dren in eighth grade and high school that en­cour­age stu­dents to work with pub­lic of­fi­cials and learn how their gov­ern­ment works.

Mean­while, a non­profit or­ga­ni­za­tion called the Civics Ed­u­ca­tion Ini­tia­tive is push­ing for states to re­quire high school stu­dents to pass a test of 100 ba­sic facts about U.S. his­tory and civics be­fore they can grad­u­ate. The ques­tions are pulled from the same test that all im­mi­grants are re­quired to take to gain cit­i­zen­ship.

So far, the or­ga­ni­za­tion has got­ten 28 states to pass such a re­quire­ment — or some­thing sim­i­lar — and Texas is con­sid­er­ing the move as well.

These changes to ed­u­ca­tion pol­icy can’t come soon enough. The Na­tion’s Re­port Card civics scores in 2014 among eighth­graders showed no im­prove­ment from their dis­mal level in 2010. Less than one-quar­ter of stu­dents scored at the level of “pro­fi­cient” or bet­ter, and only about half said they found their civics course­work in­ter­est­ing “of­ten” or “al­ways.”

Ear­lier this year, the Woodrow Wil­son Na­tional Fel­low­ship Foun­da­tion sur­veyed 1,000 ran­domly se­lected Amer­i­can adults with a mul­ti­ple-choice quiz about civics. The re­sults were ap­palling:

• Only 13 per­cent knew when the U.S. Con­sti­tu­tion was rat­i­fied, with most in­cor­rectly think­ing it oc­curred in 1776.

• 60 per­cent didn’t know which coun­tries the United States fought in World War II.

• 57 per­cent did not know how many jus­tices serve on the Supreme Court.

These con­di­tions — the marginal­iza­tion of a civics ed­u­ca­tion and chil­dren hav­ing to sue to get one — cre­ate a per­fect storm.

They pro­vide the right mix of ig­no­rance, ap­a­thy and gulli­bil­ity that can lead to the dis­man­tling of our pub­lic in­sti­tu­tions, our gov­ern­ment and our democ­racy.

How are young peo­ple sup­posed to know that those who for­get the past are doomed to re­peat it if they never learn the adage to be­gin with?

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