Learn About: 21st Century | Charter Schools | Homework
Home / Edifier


The EDifier

March 18, 2016

Improving civics education is key to strong, equitable democracy

While the constant news coverage and interest in the presidential campaign might suggest Americans are well-versed in our country’s political process, data from the latest civics assessment of NAEP, colloquially known as the Nation’s Report Card, finds otherwise.

Indeed, the results show that there is not only a widespread lack of civic knowledge, but it is especially pronounced among minority students.

Administered on a rotating basis to fourth, eighth and 12th-grade students from participating schools, the data from the last Civics Assessment for 12th- graders show that 62% of African American students have a below basic knowledge of civics, and only 8% are at or above proficient. Meanwhile, 50% of Hispanic students possess below basic knowledge of civics, with 13% are at or above proficient.

What kind of knowledge gaps are we talking about?

Based on the sample questions in the NAEP assessment, most minority students in eighth-grade cannot name a right protected by the First Amendment, while most 12th-grade minority students cannot explain the meaning of a Supreme Court opinion. A mere 3% of 12th-graders nationally knew that the Supreme Court could use judicial review to preserve the rights of minorities.

Conversely, white students are performing better on each aspect of the civics exam, creating a civic engagement gap that is important for the nation to address. Democracy cannot be fully realized when citizens do not recognize how the government works and their own ability to make change. Research shows that civic learning corresponds to an increase in students’ civic participation and likelihood of voting. Building a civic identity in students will increase their sense of empowerment over their lives and the direction of their communities.

An unintended consequence of recent policies pushing for achievement and excellence in reading and math is that there is less time in the curriculum for other subjects. Science and social studies are often sidelined to increase time in English and math courses. Seventy-one percent of districts have cut back on time dedicated to subjects other than math and English— the largest cut coming from social studies. This has meant that civics education is not valued as much as courses that will prepare students for standardized testing. Civics education is vital for all students so that they are able to participate in democracy and engage the community in a meaningful way.

A great danger for the future of the United States is that we are educating a citizenry that does not understand how to have a voice in politics, how the government of the United States operates, or how to enact change and influence in their communities; particularly among poor and minority populations.

While it is important that students continue to have strong content knowledge in English and math, it must also make time in the curriculum for civics education. Civics courses will complement English and math courses as it requires students to read, think critically, write, and analyze charts, graphs and data. Further, students who feel empowered to change their communities and circumstances and receive instruction that is relevant to their lives become more engaged in school which could lead to higher performance in all subjects.

It is imperative that all students learn how to participate in a democracy and then create change in their communities in a civically responsible manner. A civics course that requires students to learn how the United States government works as well as how to be active, politically-engaged citizens must be included in public school curricula.  -Breanna Higgins

Filed under: 21st century education,CPE,First Amendment,NAEP — Tags: , — Breanna Higgins @ 7:00 am





September 4, 2015

Parsing religion’s place in schools

Religion and schools Few issues can spark more emotion and confusion than the role of religion in public schools. As Charles C. Haynes recently noted, “schools still struggle to get it right.” Here at CPE, we see evidence in the fact that, nine years after it was first published, our paper on the topic is still consistently among our top downloaded reports.

Edwin C. Darden, a lawyer and the author of the CPE paper, attributes the confusion to “the clashing and equally forceful commands contained in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.” There is the right of students and staff to “freely exercise” their faith – a guarantee that does not go away when individuals enter the school door. At the same time, the First Amendment prohibits the government and its institutions – including public schools – from “establishing” religion.  Simply, schools must respect the religious rights of individual students and staff but do so while not appearing to endorse or favor any particular religion or even religion itself.

Sometimes the push and pull between these clauses leads to conflicts that eventually require the courts’ judgment to resolve. Haynes argues that many of these cases did not need to get that far. He writes, “What’s striking about these conflicts — and others like them across the country — is that far too many school officials are violating settled law. Either they don’t know the law or, worse yet, they simply choose to ignore it.” I think there is a lot of truth in what Haynes says. But there are also some situations where the lines are not all that clear between what is and is not allowed in schools, leaving even the most conscientious school leaders somewhat baffled.

Under the Establishment Clause, schools may teach about religion, which has an academic, secular purpose, but they must not cross the line to proselytizing or promoting religion. Darden gives the example of a school choir that sings songs of praise as part of its repertoire. He explains, “While the music originates from church, the choir is learning principles of performance, vocal control, and other artistic concepts by participating. The words of faith are viewed as secondary.” This, he argues, is an allowable school practice. But the distinction can get complicated.

A recent case in Laurens County, Georgia, also involves a song of faith, but some are questioning whether its purpose is truly secular. According to a news report, the West Laurens High School band has a decades-long tradition of playing “Amazing Grace” before football games followed by a moment of silence. Many in the crowd use the moment to recite the Lord’s Prayer together.

Americans United for the Separation of Church and State sent a formal request to the school to stop the prayer and song, and at this writing, the school board’s decision is pending. The case is far from clear-cut. The song “Amazing Grace” itself has a long history in the U.S. and could, therefore, fit comfortably in the educational, secular bucket. The individuals in the crowd also have a right to pray. But by following a school band’s performance of a song of faith with a moment of silence whose purpose is reflection or prayer, the school may be crossing the line from the secular to non-secular, and this could be a case of what the courts call “entanglement.” As Darden puts the question, “Does the government involvement with a religious activity stretch so deep that it is indistinguishable from the religious nature itself?” If so, then the practice would be judged unconstitutional.

These questions are confounded when community opinion and local tradition enter the fray. Little wonder, then, that many schools take the easy way out and essentially declare the school building a no-religion zone. But this is not a solution and can lead to other problems. Haynes cites the case of a Nevada school that refused to allow a sixth-grade girl to use a Bible verse as part of an assignment called “All About Me,” no doubt out of the teacher’s concern about allowing religion in the classroom but in clear violation of the child’s right to free expression. Religion avoidance also leaves gaps in children’s academic preparation. How can they understand history without understanding the role religions played in the political and social development of movements and nations? As an English major, I can’t imagine how to even read a large body of the world’s literature without some basic understanding of its religious context and metaphors.

The fear of religious controversy also affects the teaching of secular content that some faiths take exception to. This is especially true in science. The Fordham Institute found that most state science standards gave short shrift to the study of evolution, and that even in states that address this central biological concept, the mention of human evolution is “conspicuously missing.”

Haynes calls for in-service workshops for educators and administrators on “how to apply the religious-liberty principles of the First Amendment.” I would go further. I suggest that pre-service teacher and principal preparation require First Amendment training. And that all school leaders, including school boards, be given opportunities to better understand how to allow religion in the school that respects individuals’ rights while remaining neutral, as a public institution must.







RSS Feed