Making Americans: Civic education and the Common Core

Stefanie Sanford

This post is adapted from comments prepared by Stefanie Sanford for the Manhattan Institute event on Civic Education and the Common Core.

Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1816, "If a nation expects to be ignorant and free…it expects what never was and never will be.” It was his strong belief in education as the bedrock of democracy that made Jefferson one of our earliest and strongest champions of public education.

In later writings, he elaborated that among the core functions of this education system should be to ensure that each student understands “his duties to his neighbors and country” and will “discharge with competence the functions confided to him by either.” He concluded, “The qualifications for self-government in society are not innate. They are the result of habit and long training.”

The Problem

We are gathered here for today’s conversation because of a growing concern that our schools have failed this basic test. As the invitation warned, “Most high-school students are unacquainted with the Gettysburg Address. Many cannot even identify the century in which the Civil War was fought.”

Results from the 2010 civics test showed fewer than a quarter of all students scoring at or above proficiency in eighth or twelfth grade. In U.S. history, the results are even worse: only 18 percent of eighth graders and 13 percent of twelfth graders scored at or above proficient.

Worse still, only 1 percent of eighth graders and 4 percent of twelfth graders were “advanced” on the NAEP civics tests, and only 1 percent in both eighth and twelfth grade were advanced in U.S. history. That means that, even among our nation’s best and brightest, knowledge of U.S. history, civics, and government is unacceptably low.

How can this be? People from all sides of the political spectrum agree with Jefferson—in principle if not in practice—that one of the most important aims of American education is to ensure that students graduate knowing our nation’s history, understanding how our government works, and appreciating American exceptionalism. Yet, our schools are graduating a generation of historically and culturally illiterate Americans.

You don’t have to dig too deep to see why. For starters, the amount of time that schools devote to history and civics education has been on the decline for decades. Some research suggests that elementary students spend less than 8 percent of their instructional time on “social studies,” of which American history and civics generally plays a distressingly small part. Worse still, the amount of time devoted to social studies has been decreasing. One federal study suggested that between 1987–88 and 2003–04, the amount of time devoted to social studies had shrunk so dramatically that, by 2003 –04, students were getting the equivalent of four weeks less social-studies instruction each year than their peers in 1988.

Where did this time go? In short, because of a nationwide push to improve student reading and math achievement, schools have shifted time from science, history, and the arts to English language arts and math.

Then a funny thing happened: student reading achievement stagnated. In 1971, the average reading score on the twelfth-grade NAEP was 285. In 2008, it was 286.

While the goal of improving reading achievement is noble, our efforts to do so have been misguided and have inadvertently undermined our efforts to improve civic education for two reasons.

First, student reading comprehension will not improve unless we teach content.

Research tells us that, once students have learned how to read, the best way to improve reading comprehension is to broaden students’ content knowledge and to expand their vocabulary. That means that, rather than shifting time away from history and civics, if we really want to improve reading achievement, we should redouble our efforts to teach important content. And that includes teaching U.S. history and civics.

Second, civics education cannot stand alone.

For too long, schools have looked at civics education as something that exists on its own. It was a separate course—perhaps a semester-long course of study that students took once in high school and never again.

The reality is that civics education should be infused throughout the K–12 curriculum. Students in English classes should be asked to read and understand the Founding documents—not just for their historical significance but also for their literary merit. And they should be invited to study and analyze the great texts that are part of the Great Conversation. These are part of a well-rounded ELA curriculum, not an add-on that comes only if and when schools have time. We cannot expect to graduate a generation of culturally and historically literate American citizens unless our curriculum and instruction are infused with the great literary works that informed and drove our nation’s great history.

The path to improved civics education is a complicated one. It will involve not just increasing time spent on important subjects like civics, U.S. history, and government but also refocusing the curriculum and instruction in those courses on engaging in work that’s worth doing. More specifically, we need to focus our students’ time in English, history, and civics on real reading—on selecting texts that are worthy of study and analysis, on texts that help them understand our nation’s history, and on reading those texts with great care. This combination of great texts and real reading is our best hope of improving student understanding of our nation’s history, of its government, and of our civic culture.

To that end, the Common Core and the College Board are poised to help jump-start a renewed commitment to civic education in a number of important ways.

  1. The Common Core literacy standards emphasize the importance of content and vocabulary to reading comprehension. That is why they explicitly call for teachers to use a “content-rich curriculum” to drive teaching and learning.
  2. There are only five readings explicitly required by the Common Core: One is a Shakespearean play, and the other four are The Declaration of Independence, the Preamble to the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address.
  3. The Common Core emphasize the importance of reading important American historical documents, including the Federalist Papers and other seminal U.S. texts.

This emphasis on the Founding Documents and the Great Conversation is explicit and can not only help drive reading gains, but it can also help ensure that our students graduate with a far better and deeper understanding of American history, civics, and government.

Conclusion

In the end, it is this combination of content, real reading, and the study of important historical texts that will most effectively drive student understanding of and engagement in our civic culture. The moment to make those shifts is here; now it’s up to us to seize it.

Stefanie Sanford is the Chief of Global Policy and Advocacy for The College Board and a member of the Board of Trustees for the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. She is also the author of Civic Life in the Information Age: Politics, Technology, and Generation X.

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