Should we fight for civic education?
In a way, the battles we have seen in recent years over what to teach school children in civics classes resemble the war in Ukraine: they are totally unnecessary and can be entirely the work of attackers.
The American public is divided on many issues. Our politicians certainly are. Culture wars also abound in the world of K-12, including sensitive aspects of school management and curriculum, what should be in school libraries, especially issues around sex, gender, and gender identity”.
Yet, more than you probably realize, Americans are mostly of the same mind when it comes to civics. Here is some of the evidence, starting with parents, from a June 2021 article by Anna Saavedra:
Between mid-April and the end of May 2021, the Dornsife Center for Economic and Social Research at the University of Southern California asked 1,510 K-12 parents of the national representative Understanding the American Study (UAS) how important they think it is for students to learn civics subjects at school. As we show in Figure 1, we found that parents from all political parties rate it as important or very important for students to learn about the US system of government (85%), the requirements for voting ( 79%), the leadership role of the United States in the world (73%), the influence of the federal government on national and local affairs (72%), how students can get involved in local government or politics (71%), the benefits and challenges of social programs like Medicare and Social Security (64%), and the contributions of historical figures who are women (74%) and racial/ethnic minorities (71% ).
No, it’s not unanimous, it’s just big percentages in favor, percentages that mostly cross political lines.
Support for teaching some topics is a little more lukewarm – and partisan – among parents:
Lower proportions of Republican parents consider discussions on topics such as the United States’ leadership role in the world (67%), federalism (64%), social programs (54%), the way in which students can be involved (65%) and contributions from women (65%) or racial/ethnic minorities (60%). But the vast majority of parents from all political parties believe that learning about each of these topics is important for students.
As for the general public, support for teaching key topics is even stronger:
We … found even higher levels of support for teaching each of the civics topics listed among adults without children in K-12 at home, including majorities among Republicans. For example, while overall 70% of K-12 parents believe it is important for students to learn about racism in the United States, 75% of adults believe the same (51 % Republicans, 92% Democrats). While overall 61% of K-12 parents feel it is important to discuss political issues, the percentage is 71% for adults without K-12 children living in the House (55% Republicans, 82% Democrats).
Parents and the broader adult population overwhelmingly support schools that educate students about the rights and responsibilities of citizenship, regardless of their political leanings, and the majority of American adults of all parties also believe that children should discuss political issues and racism at school.
I declare that the civics curriculum glass is considerably more than half full and could be the basis for agreement rather than conflict.
No you don’t have to see it that way, and some people prefer not to. Some love culture wars and make a living and get their grants by fanning flames, picking fights, calling names, donning armor and launching arrows, missiles and fireball drones into what they want you to believe you are enemy camps.
These warriors can look at the Republican numbers above, for example, and declare that barely half want to see kids taught about racism and hot political topics, leaving plenty of room for conflict.
And we have conflicts. Look, for example, at last week’s brouhaha in Colorado over civic standards for K-12 schooling in the Rocky Mountain state. After much debate, the four-person Democratic majority on the state Board of Education rejected the three Republicans’ proposal to substitute “American Birthright” civic standards for those the state used (and is in the process of revamping ).
When writing or rewriting their academic standards, regardless of topic, states typically assemble large committees of educators and others to go through draft after draft, seeking agreement on what young people of this state should learn – and its public schools should teach – every year starting in kindergarten. until high school.
Colorado has such standards in ten subject areas, and its standards for “social studies” contain separate streams for the four basic disciplines: history, geography, economics, and civics.
When Fordham reviewers recently reviewed Colorado’s Civic Standards, they were disappointed, giving them an overall grade of “D”, calling them “inadequate” and stating that “they do not specifically reference essential content , and the sporadic lists of people or events that accompany general grade level expectations do not define an appropriate scope or sequence. (The United States History portion of the Colorado Standards rated another “D”.)
State lawmakers were also unhappy with their standards and ordered an overhaul.
What to do? The Colorado State Board of Trustees has struggled as each draft of new social studies standards has been criticized from one direction or another, often criticized for giving insufficient attention to one group or to a favorite problem.
So why not import a full set of standards from outside? That’s what the R’s on the board have suggested, and the set they’ve chosen to promote, dubbed “American Birthright,” is the product of the “Civics Alliance,” a loose body of dozens of people. organizations and many individual advisers, experts and officials, brought together by the National Association of Scholars (NAS).
It is important to note that, although American birthright flies the flag for “civics,” its 115 pages of real world standards also incorporate heavy doses of history, geography, and economics, paralleling Colorado’s approach to social studies in this regard.
Many of those involved in the Civics Alliance are proud conservatives, and “American Birthright” undeniably comes with a big conservative chip on its shoulder. It starts with leader David Randall, who is the director of research at the NAS and who has made a career in recent years of speaking out against other civic reform ventures, such as Educating for American Democracy (EAD) and its road to excellence in history and civic education”. “I myself have a good opinion of EAD, I applaud its valiant efforts to reach consensus and I have served on a few of its committees. Randall, however, calls it “the central political-administrative push to reshape American civic education into a radical mold.” (He also denounced Fordham’s Civic and Historical Review for giving Colorado a pair of “Ds.”) So yes, he qualifies as a card-carrying culture warrior, as do some “American Birthright” advisers. .
It should also be noted that the fourteen-page introduction to this document is something of a screed, denouncing the teaching of “skills,” as well as “civic engagement,” inquiry-based learning, “ social-emotional learning” – and “virtually any pedagogy that claims to promote ‘diversity, equity and inclusion’ or ‘social justice’.
You can see them spoiling themselves for a fight, eager to get in the ring with EAD and others pushing hard for “investigation” and “critical thinking” and so on.
But here’s the thing. When we dig deeper into the voluminous American Birthright standards themselves, I doubt the typical American (or parent) will find much in there that they disagree with or think shouldn’t be taught and learned by American schoolchildren. Nor is it just a list of names, dates and places to memorize. Far from there. Despite the rhetoric of its introduction, the Tier-by-Tier Standards are full of thought-provoking expectations such as “Explain the characteristics of the American republic, including the concepts of popular sovereignty and constitutional government, which includes limited government , representative institutions, federalism, separation of powers, shared powers, checks and balances, republican virtue and individual rights to life, liberty, property and due process” (for the fourth year), and “Identify and explain the meaning and importance of civic dispositions or virtues that contribute to the preservation and enhancement of civil society and government” (for grade 12).
Yes, much of it is “factual”. This is in many ways the flip side of DE, which is to ask questions that students must wrestle with and work to answer. American Birthright could be described largely as providing answers to hundreds of these questions, providing the “tricks” that would enable children to struggle successfully. It is even possible to consider the two companies as complementary. Everyone can be blamed for what they leave out. Both should be commended for how much they would lead us to a society in which high school graduates actually know how their country works, what its strengths and weaknesses have been, its successes and failures, and why they should care about these things. and work to make them better.
We could, if we really wanted to, work to unify, consolidate, compromise and agree on what children should learn in areas like civics. I don’t mean it should be exactly the same in Oregon, Virginia, and Arizona, or Cleveland, Fort Worth, and Seattle, but they would have a lot more in common than they would be different. That’s what the American public seems to think.
We could do it if we really wanted to. But then the culture warriors would need new jobs. Babysitting, maybe? There are many openings. In fact, there are also many openings for true warriors to join the US Army.