Hand taking a standardized test.

Test Don’t Teach: This Is Not How You Fix Civics Education

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Legislators take note – tests are not the right answer.

They’re an easy answer. They’re a simple answer. But they don’t make education better, and they’re not the way to make civics education better.

While searching for some civics related info earlier tonight, I stumbled upon this gem: Civics Education Initiative. It’s an innocuous sounding name with a horrific goal – to require students to pass the US CIS citizenship test in order to graduate.

You Identified the Right Symptoms…

The folks over at the Civics Education Initiative probably mean well. Let’s at least give them the benefit of the doubt.

Reading the FAQ, they identify some of the right symptoms:

Too few citizens know and understand basic American civics – how our government works and who we are as a nation. […] If you don’t know how our government works, you’re not likely to be an active and engaged citizen. It’s no wonder so few citizens vote, given this lack of basic civics knowledge.

I don’t think many people would argue with that. There’s plenty of evidence that the average citizen just doesn’t know what’s going on.

And then there’s this on why civics isn’t being taught:

Education funding is increasingly tied to high-stakes testing on reading, math and science, with a particular focus on STEM subjects – science, technology, engineering, and math. While important, this emphasis is leaving civics as a secondary subject or in some cases, not being taught at all.

This is also largely true. There is no incentive from federal policy to teach civics, and some states aren’t much better. In many elementary schools, students don’t learn social studies every day because so much time is spent on the core, tested subjects.

And Prescribed the Wrong Solution

But here’s the scariest line of the whole website:

We already require by Federal law that new citizens must learn these 100 facts so they can be prepared to be active and engaged citizens.

Really? 100 facts is all you need to be an active and engaged citizen?

The statement is revealing, though, because it becomes clear what the misunderstanding is. The proponents of the Civics Education Initiative think that this is simply a problem of knowledge.

People don’t know because they haven’t been taught. So if we teach them, they’ll know.

But civics education is not and never can be about simply knowing facts. At its core, it’s not about reading the word, it’s about reading the world.

People aren’t disengaged just because their level of civic knowledge is low. They’re disengaged because their political efficacy is low. They don’t have the skills to be effective citizens, nor do they have the experience of successful participation.

So What’s the Answer?

I wish I had all the answers. Hopefully, in the course of our conversation about civics, we can find them together.

But in the absence of answers, here are the go-to suggestions that I always have for improving civics education:

  1. Reduce the amount of content in social studies classes. This opens up more time to shift the focus from reading the word to reading the world.
  2. End the tyranny of chronology, and emphasize a more thematic approach to the social studies curriculum.
  3. Incorporate character education that develops in students the attitudes requisite for responsible citizenship and the skills necessary for civil discourse.
  4. Get students registered to vote as early as possible and instill in them the habit of voting.
  5. Use a problem based learning approach, like Project Citizen or Youth Participatory Action Research, to scaffold students civic engagement and build their political efficacy.

Good civics and social studies teachers know these things. They do them in their classroom to the extent that they can. But educational policy disincentivizes this type of teaching by focusing on short term outcomes like test scores and student growth.

You notice what I didn’t list in my suggestions?

Make students memorize 100 facts.

The goal of the Civic Education Initiative is to pass legislation in all 50 states by September 17, 2017. That’s Constitution Day, and it’s coming up this week.

Thankfully, they will not succeed. And as a commemoration of that failure, I think we should all take a moment this Constitution Day to remind people that civics isn’t about facts, and tests aren’t going to create citizens.

The image at the top of this post was licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 License. It’s by Alberto G. on Flickr.

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