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Do We Need More or a Different Kind of Civic Education? (Washington Examiner) March 4, 2021

Posted by daviddavenport in Op/Eds.

Civic education in America could use help from almost any quarter.

That bears note because, with major funding from the federal government and deep engagement by 300 scholars, practitioners, and other experts, a new civic education road map was released this week. “Educating for American Democracy” seeks to help states, school districts, and schools “build a new foundation” for civic education by guiding the development of new civic education curriculum across the land.

The most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress test scores tell us that only 24% of eighth graders are proficient or better in civics, with a pitiful 15% proficient in U.S. history. Only one-third could pass the basic citizenship test given to immigrants. But is a new curricular road map what we most need to right the ship?

Moreover, are academics the best ones to design the map? A road map could be anything from a one-page foldout to a 300-page book. Likewise, there are significant disagreements about civic education. Some, myself included, believe civic education is itself in reasonably good health but needs much greater emphasis and priority. Others believe that approach is old-fashioned, that we need to move away from civic knowledge to civic action as a way to engage and teach the young.

There are also those who think almost everything about the history and civics we teach is wrong. The founding of our country must be changed, they say, from 1776 to the coming of slaves and to the formation of the colonies in 1619. Ethnic studies, including condemnations of capitalism, should be the order of the day. Statues, murals, and names of flawed historical figures should be removed in this new Left version of civic education.

In order to be effective, then, a road map has to be something one could reasonably expect to follow. Unfortunately, this new road map is more like the several-hundred-pager than it is a one-page foldout. It incorporates seven themes, followed by five design challenges, and includes countless key concepts, questions, and recommendations. Your average teacher or state legislator is more likely to be overwhelmed than guided. Scholars have their own agendas when they design a road map. Not content just to do more civic education, they seek to improve democracy using civic education as a tool. Our democracy is in “grave danger,” the report says, plagued by inequities, civic dysfunction, polarization, and even violence. It calls on us to “build a new foundation.”

We misdiagnose the problem. It’s not that we don’t know what works; it’s that we aren’t doing enough of it.

Consider that we spend only 5 cents per student per year on civic education and $54 on science, technology, engineering, and math education. Fewer than 10 states require as much as a year of civic education in high school, and some do not require any. Civics has all but been pushed out of elementary and middle school curricula altogether.

Here’s a thought: Rather than doing something completely different, we need to do more civics education, period.

David Davenport is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution and a senior fellow at the Ashbrook Center. He is the author of a recent report: “Commonsense Solutions To Our Civics Crisis.”

To read the column at the Washington Examiner:


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