If the casual mention of a high school social studies class makes your eyes glaze over, you aren't alone. The stereotype of the throw-away, easy A class taught by the football coach is there for a reason.
But you also aren't thinking about civics the way that education scholar Peter Levine thinks you should. "In 1948, 41 percent of American kids took a class called Problems of Democracy. It was reading the newspaper and discussing the issues and writing papers about it, which is pretty much what I would want to happen. ...It's basically gone now," said Levine, who runs the civic engagement organization CIRCLE.
Levine worries a lot about how kids learn to become citizens. He says schools aren't teaching them about civics in any consistent or meaningful way. CIRCLE's research on government curriculum finds that all states require some form of social studies, but most states don't test on it and those that do use the cheapest multiple-choice tests. "That's why everybody knows how old you have to be president," he said. "It's often required but only taught in senior year when senioritis has set in when a lot of students have dropped out already."
Without context, knowing about the Constitution's separation of powers or how a bill becomes a law seems is to a lot of kids, particularly those from disadvantaged areas whose parents may be less likely to vote. The Senate's filibuster threshold makes a lot more sense if you're looking at it in terms of food stamps in the farm bill or the Dream Act for undocumented youth. Young adult high school dropouts say that the main reason they left school is that what they were learning had nothing to do with their everyday problems. On the other hand, at-risk youth who have taken part in "service learning" programs that confront current issues within their communities are more likely to stay in school. That means they are more likely to get jobs, stay healthy, and vote.
Some critics blame educators' increased focus on math and reading for the demise of civics studies in classrooms. One doesn't necessarily cancel out the other--reading and writing about current events can be just as useful as reading and writing about Shakespeare. (No offense to the Bard.) Unfortunately, Levine says that the most disadvantaged schools tend to be the ones that hunker down around reading and math basics, perhaps forgetting that there is an election happening, because they fear being labeled as failing. No one can blame them, but the narrower focus creates a vicious cycle of inequality about teaching the role of citizens in a democracy. The kids who miss out on meaningful civics classes are the most at risk of alienation to begin with.
Where do civics or government studies fit in schools? What is the best definition of a meaningful civics education? What questions about civics studies remain unanswered? What sorts of investments are needed to foster a robust study of government? How important is it to prepare high school students to cast their first vote? Is it the school's responsibility or someone else's?