Jewish World Review Oct. 6, 2004 / 21 Tishrei, 5765

Jane R. Eisner

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Civics shouldn't be left behind


http://www.jewishworldreview.com | Imagine a nation whose young people suffer from a huge gap in civic knowledge - about the workings of government, the values of democracy, the skills of citizenship. As a result, the young people vote at shockingly low rates and don't participate much in political life.

At the same time, the nation is blessed with many educators who want to turn around this civic amnesia and even public officials who recognize what needs to be done. But to hold schools accountable, to separate the good programs from the ineffective ones, the nation needs to test its students every now and then to assess how much they are learning.

A reasonable request, considering how much testing of math and verbal skills goes on every year.

Or so you would think.

Wake up, America, to what's happening with civic education.

If we don't, we'll raise yet another generation woefully ill-informed and ill-equipped to become active citizens.

In the obsession to test repeatedly for whether students can read and compute, measuring civics knowledge has fallen by the wayside, its future now in doubt. The federal officials responsible for the National Assessment of Educational Progress last issued a nationwide exam in 1998; the next one isn't scheduled until 2006 - maybe. And if it does happen, it will again be only a national sample without separate state results, rendering it of little use in observing trends in civics, comparing state standards, measuring progress and holding policymakers accountable.


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It's also a telling message to students: We care about math and reading so much that we test it every two years nationally, and more often in many states, but civics? That's the expendable part of public education.

"There's seems to be an awakening to the importance of preparing a future for people who understand and respect democracy," said Sheilah Mann, who recently retired as director of education and professional development for the American Political Science Association. "But testing is a tough sell."

Why? Partly because high-quality national assessment is expensive, since it costs millions for NAEP to survey students and teachers, and compare the results with student transcripts to judge actual performance. This level of detail, however, is just what makes it so valuable.

More than cost, civics testing is laden with political and pedagogical pitfalls. There's long been an argument over whether to emphasize knowledge of American history, government and the like, or measure attachment - that is, the eagerness of a student to discuss politics at home, register to vote, etc.

Teaching civics, unlike any other subject, has an additional goal beyond proficiency in facts, trends and ideas. Science education can be successful even if the entire class does not become scientists. But civics concerns the development of active, thinking, prepared citizens - not necessarily would-be politicians, but citizens who will vote, pay attention to news and public affairs, participate in civic life, and hold leaders accountable.

This was, from the beginning, one of the central roles of public education, but it is a mission too often ignored or suppressed. A national commission charged with evaluating NAEP testing for 12th graders issued a report earlier this year that called for assessing students' readiness for college, the workforce and the military. No mention of citizenship.

The irony of this omission is that there are plenty of well-designed, innovative civic education programs in schools today that could be replicated broadly. All the advocates are requesting is to assess these efforts every three years with enough specificity to be useful.

Any businessperson knows that you value what you measure, and you measure what you value. When are we as a nation going to truly value citizenship?



Jane R. Eisner is a columnist for Philadelphia Inquirer. Comment by clicking here.

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