Wednesday, September 21, 2011

How to Improve American Civics Education

I mentioned Constitution Day last week, but at the time I didn't realize that a major new report on civics education was released on that day.  Guardian of Democracy:  The Civic Mission of Schools, a study conducted by the Annenberg Center for Public Policy at the University of Pennsylvania and some other partners, is refreshing in that it is NOT one of those cries-of-alarm-with-no-solutions reports that remind me of Charles Dudley Warner's quip that "Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it."  Rather, it delineates what IS effective civics education, along with the many benefits associated with such education, and tries to rally public support into making this a higher priority in our educational system.

The report begins with the usual statistics showing American students having an appalling lack of knowledge about the American system.  For example, the latest national exam on civics found that less than 1/3 of all eight graders could correctly explain the historical significance of the Declaration of Independence, and 2/3 of all American students had scores below the proficiency level.   While most schools report having some kind of mandatory civics education, most admit that time and resources for that subject have been squeezed in order to focus on the subjects on which the students and schools will be judged in the No Child Left Behind program.

This report was most interesting, however (at least in my opinion), when it looked at the different types of programs that were offered and the subsequent scores of those different types of students on various 21st century skills, such as critical thinking and the ability to work cooperatively with others with a diverse background.   This study identified two different approaches to civics education:  the Traditional Education approach, which mostly involved teacher lectures and a traditional textbook, which many times focused on the mechanics of democracy, such as voting and party politics, etc., and the Open Discussion Classroom, in which teachers encouraged open-ended discussions of issues in which students expressed different opinions and where differences on issues might be left unresolved.

The study broke the schools into four categories:

  • Low amount of Traditional civics education, Low amount of Open Discussion
  • High amount of Traditional civics education, Low amount of Open Discussion
  • Low amount of Traditional civics education, High amount of Open Discussion
  • High amount of Traditional civics education, High amount of Open Discussion
I'm sure you will all be SHOCKED to find out that the schools with low levels of both approaches did the worst, and the ones with high levels of both did the best.  However, of the 12 different sets of knowledge, skills, and attitudes studied, in NO case did #2 (lots of Tradition but little Discussion) beat either #3 or #4--the two sets with high amounts of Open Discussion.  And, in fact, #3 (little Traditional, lots of Discussion) beat #4 (lots of Traditional, lots of Discussion) in two of the 12 areas, and tied with them on another two.

So, in short, it seems like we get a lot more bang for our buck by having students discuss issues, hold differing opinions, argue the pros and cons with each other, and sometimes simply agreeing to disagree, than we do with all the traditional textbook approaches to civic education.

There is lots more to the report--lots of statistics showing the better civics education relates to fewer drop-outs, less violence in school, better work habits, higher educational attainment and salaries, etc.--and lots of suggestions of ways we can vastly improve this critical aspect of American education.  You can read about them in the report, which you can download from this link.

But the bottom line, to my reading, at least, is to leave the book behind and let students get involved in real research, debates, and action about real political issues.  Makes a lot of sense to me....  It is certainly the way I try to approach civics education, as do a number of my homeschooling friends.  And it makes one more reason why I am glad we are able to homeschool.

1 comment:

  1. What can students DO with their civics education? It looks like one of them "when you grow up and if you happen to be in certain lucky circumstances" things, not something you can make/do/apply immediately. Two local cases in which Katherine got interested were exercises in frustration and helplessness of the regular people.