Last week the National Assessment of Education Progress released a report card on U.S. history, geography and civics. Unfortunately, the results were dismal, but not surprising. Only 23 percent of eighth-graders tested at or above proficient in civics with no improvement since the last report card for these subjects in 2010.
If this isn’t a call to action for educators, policymakers and local communities, we are in big trouble. Our democracy, workforce and society depend on the skills and knowledge found in social studies. When students participate in rigorous and relevant civics education, they learn by studying real-world events and they are prepared to solve real-world challenges.
Our democracy calls for all members of society to be represented in legislatures, political offices, jury boxes and voting booths. But as long as a “civic opportunity gap” exists, we are not living up to the vision of our Founding Fathers – and we are shortchanging our youths.
But there is hope.
In California we are seeing a civics education movement gain momentum. When state Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye established the Power of Democracy Steering Committee two years ago and called upon concerned educators and leaders in law and business to get involved, we didn’t have a road map, just a common desire to get civics back on course.
One of our first steps was to team up with state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson to establish a task force to develop a plan for revitalizing civic learning. The task force took a long, thoughtful look at waning civic engagement in California and how K-12 education could play an important role in reversing the alarming trends of civic apathy, low voter participation and lack of understanding. We concluded that the environment was ripe for positive change, starting with K-12 students.
Fortunately, at the same time, changing educational systems presented an opportunity to elevate civics education. At the federal level, the impending reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act was expanded to include language supporting social studies, specifically civics.
At the state level, the state Board of Education has revised the English and language arts curriculum to emphasize civic learning, starting in kindergarten. We continue to work with the board to strengthen civics as it revises standards for history and social science.
On the local level, we formed pilot civic learning partnerships, bringing together law, business and education leaders to develop plans to elevate civic learning. Since the partnerships were formed in February, school districts including San Diego Unified, Alameda Unified and 12 of 14 districts in Butte County have passed resolutions calling for superintendents and their staff to work toward civic literacy of all K-12 students.
We are encouraged to see policymakers, educators and community leaders display the kind of energy and attention that can reverse the trends reflected in the report card and expand civics education to all students in California.
David W. Gordon is Sacramento County superintendent of schools and co-chairman of the Power of Democracy Steering Committee. Michelle Herczog is president of the National Council for the Social Studies and served on the California Task Force on K-12 Civic Learning.