Legislators’ Group Out to Enliven Civics Teaching

By: - May 2, 2000 12:00 am

Young people are opting out of the U.S. political process in droves, a worrisome trend for healthy American democracy. In the 1996 presidential election, only 17 percent of 18-25 year-olds voted.

In an effort to try to address this, the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) is sending state lawmakers into classrooms to teach civics this September.

“Back to School” day will match lawmakers with schools in an attempt to give kids firsthand information about politics and policy making. The point is “to stand in the shoes of a legislator and understand how much people disagree on the critical issues and how difficult it is for a legislator to resolve those disagreements,” Karl Kurtz, director of the NCSL program said.

Charles Quigley, Executive Director of the Center for Civic Education endorses the project. He says youthful apathy is directly related to schools not doing enough to teach civics.

“There is a lot of evidence that with a good program students become very active in government and politics and they participate,” Quigley said.

NCSL is urging all 7,424 state legislators to participate in its program.

“We are trying to build greater trust,” Kurtz said. “If you don’t have trust you have fewer qualified people willing to take on the job of running for office. The absence of trust puts the whole system of representative democracy in peril.

After the 1960’s and 70s, scarred by the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal, many school administrators gave less emphasis to civic education, focusing instead on more diverse ethnic studies.

“All sorts of states give lip service to civic education and say something about it in social studies standards, but look in the curriculum and the text books and you can’t find it,” Quigley said.

Today, 78 percent of high school students study civics for one semester, but political scientists argue it is too little, too late.

According to the National Assessment for Education Progress (NAEP) civics exam, which is given once a decade, only 25 percent of the nation’s 4th, 8th and 12th grade students were proficient in civics and nearly 35 percent did not even have a basic understanding of how government works.

The results of the 1998 test were released in 1999 and spurred efforts to include civics in the national standards movement.

Quigley’s center invited scholars, teachers and civic leaders to create a voluntary standard for civic education which details what a student should understand about government in each grade level.

The standard was developed over several years with money from Department of Education and a grant from the Pew Charitable Trusts. (It also funds stateline.org.) The standard was published in 1994 and has been a model for states.

Today, three states — Alaska, Colorado and Vermont — have standards just for civic education. Another 41 states devote part of history or social studies standards to civics, according to a study by Kenneth W. Tolo at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs in Austin, Texas.

The seven states where no standard exists are Arizona, Iowa, Montana, Nevada, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Wyoming.

Nearly 30 states require high school students to take a government or civics class to graduate. But the real test will come when states examine students. That is when a standard truly becomes a standard when it is assessed with a test.

Only three states — Missouri, Ohio and Utah — have tests devoted just to civics. Most states include the subject in their social studies or history tests.

Quigley said that if states commit themselves to strong civic education then a competent, responsible and participatory citizenry would develop. But “when nobody participates you have a government of the few, for the few by the few,” he said.

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