Opinion: Can civics education be revived?

The events of 2020 make it clear that violence, racism, vocal extremism and political polarization have risen to a breaking point. There are multiple currents of people moving within the American public who simply don’t understand the basics of civil society and democratic government.

Decades-long de-emphasis of civics instruction in schools across the nation and in Kansas isn’t by any stretch of the imagination a major cause of the summer riots or the Capitol insurrection. But the current situation is a wake-up call bringing us back to the fundamental reason for public education.

The Founding Fathers supported public schools to develop an informed electorate whose votes would guarantee stability for the nation. Across many years, the centerpiece of teaching was preparation for citizenship. As public education evolved, civics classes, usually taught in middle school, were standard across the nation well past the mid-20th century.

These classes concentrated on three areas: 1) Fact-based knowledge of national and state history and government; 2) civic values such as voicing opinion while respecting different perspectives; and 3) civic participation skills like voting, jury duty or peaceful demonstration for a cause.

What happened? Civics classes began to disappear, gradually pushed out by decisions to emphasize U.S. history and government in high school — courses that centered on facts and processes rather than citizenship as practice. Civics instruction was repurposed as part of social studies and taught across the curriculum. All teachers in all areas have guidelines from the Kansas State Department of Education for incorporating civics in their classes, and many do so; for example, the Wichita high school special education teacher who combines math with civics.

In Kansas, two recently introduced across-the-curriculum emphases — social-emotional learning (getting along with others) and service learning (participation in community organizations) — contain elements of, but do not focus on, citizenship skills.

In 2018, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, only 22% of American eighth grade students had a teacher whose primary responsibility was teaching civics, and only about 25% of students scored at the “proficient” level for civics. Kansas scores basically followed the national norm.

Among those calling for more emphasis on civics is the chairman of the Kansas House Education Committee, Steve Huebert, who wants to require high school students to pass a citizenship test to graduate. The test would be similar to that given to immigrants applying for U.S. citizenship. It’s easy to understand Huebert’s motivation, but such a test can only measure content knowledge, not important civic values and participation skills.

Why instruction in citizenship does not always find a place in our schools could be due to another challenge: public resistance to teaching anything connected to partisan politics. Researchers at Tufts University surveyed 700 teachers and found that more than 25% would expect criticism from parents or other adults if they taught about the election that took place that fall. This was in 2012. The partisan divide has widened since.

Are Kansans so fractured by politics that public schools can’t teach citizenship?

What’s important may not be a new test or course but simply giving wide public support to teachers for teaching citizenship.

The words of President John F. Kennedy implored, “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.” Kansas students need to learn more about what they can do for their country.

— Sharon Hartin Iorio is dean emerita at Wichita State University College of Education.


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