“A Republic, if you can keep it!” With that challenge, Benjamin Franklin described the revolutionary form of government he and the other framers of our Constitution had created for the new United States of America. On Tuesday, Constitution Day, we marked 226 years since Franklin made that statement, essentially issuing a challenge to each succeeding generation to keep and improve our constitutional republic.
To appreciate and “keep” our system of government with our rights and responsibilities as Americans, we must first learn about how government operates and our roles as citizens. That is civic learning, a fundamental responsibility of our schools. The American system of public education was founded to prepare our youth for a productive life and for informed and engaged citizenship.
Sadly, today we seem to have overlooked how preparing students to be engaged citizens enhances students future performance in the workforce. Preparation for the 21st-century workforce is vital to our nation’s future, but so too is preparation for informed citizenship.
The statistics on the woeful lack of basic civic knowledge are abundant and tragic. On the last national measure of K-12 school student civic knowledge, barely a third of students could name the three branches of government, and an equal number could not name even one. Less than 20 percent of eighth-graders know why the Declaration of Independence was written, according to the 2010 Civic Report Card prepared by the National Assessment of Educational Progress.
Here in California, most students are required to take an American government course in the 12th grade. That is too little and too late and misses the students who drop out before their senior year. In a survey of graduating seniors who did take the course, the students scored 60 percent on average, a low “D” on common grading scales. Less than half of the students surveyed viewed “being involved in state and local issues” as their responsibility. Civic education must be part of the state assessment system. Simply put, civic education deserves greater attention in our schools.
We should not blame front-line teachers for a lack of effective civic learning in our schools. Solutions will be found by persuading education policymakers to put more emphasis on civic learning in California schools.
I’ve grown so concerned over the need for effective, high-quality civic learning in our schools that I’ve joined with California Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson to create the California Task Force on K-12 Civic Learning. The task force will bring definition to the skills, knowledge, and dispositions that our students need to be informed and involved citizens and community members and make recommendations for how we can achieve these outcomes for all students in California. The task force will create a blueprint to address four key areas for California school communities and students in grades K-12: Curriculum, instructional practices and resources; professional learning; community and business partnerships; and student assessment and school accountability.
We hear much today about the critical need to improve math, science and English instruction in order to compete in the 21st century global marketplace. I agree. These subjects are vital to our nation’s future; so too is ensuring that every student understands and is prepared for informed, engaged citizenship. Our schools are up to these tasks. Happily, effective civic learning helps students develop many of the 21st-century job skills employers demand; skills such as critical thinking, tolerance for the views of others and the ability to write and verbally express oneself clearly.
Yes, our schools can prepare all students for success in college, career and citizenship, if we insist upon it. Remembering Dr. Franklin’s 226-year-old charge to all of us to “keep” our republic, we must insist that all California schools effectively meet their civic mission to prepare each generation to take their place as informed and engaged citizens.
Tani G. Cantil-Sakauye is chief justice of the California Supreme Court.