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Civics Lessons

Restoring the civic mission of schools in Idaho

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From the beginning, the mission of American public schools was to instill and nurture the values of this nation and its remarkable experiment in democracy.

It was a critical task. In a country largely populated by immigrants, schools became the great melting pot, teaching students the Pledge of Allegiance, the national anthem and the history of their new home.

With the 221st anniversary of the singing of America's Constitution on Sept. 17, it is a good time to take stock of how well we are preparing today's children for active citizenry.

The answer, I'm sorry to say, isn't very promising.

Nationwide, civic learning has been in decline in recent years. A 2006 national assessment of student knowledge about civics showed two-thirds of students scoring below proficient. Less than a fifth of high school students were able to explain how citizen participation benefits democracy.

Both state law and State Board of Eduction rules require schools to offer instruction and activities in citizenship. Students are to "acquire the skills to enable them to be responsible citizens in their homes, schools, communities, state and nation." In Idaho, all graduating seniors must take a course in civics.

But the recent emphasis on high-stakes testing in math and language arts, and a concern about whether U.S. students are getting all the science and math they need, has shoved civics down on the list of priorities. It's time to restore balance.

To be successful as citizens and contributing members of society, today's students need to be able to read, write and think in many disciplines—music as well as math, economics as well as English, social studies as well as science. They need to see the connections between what they learn in school and the real-life issues they must tackle. They need to acquire the "people skills" necessary to work in diverse group settings. They need to realize that their futures will be impacted by global trade, international economic trends and political decisions made in countries around the world.

And they need to understand the history, traditions, laws and democratic processes that make this nation unique. When they say the Pledge of Allegiance, they must understand what those words really mean.

This year is a particularly good time to restore balance by emphasizing the civic mission as well as the academic mission of our schools. Students can watch the democratic process at work in local, state and national elections. Schools can focus on building citizenship skills and on learning through service to others. Classes can assess community needs, propose solutions and carry through with a plan.

Restoring the civic mission of the schools requires that civic learning be given its due share of time and attention. Funding for professional development and institutional support are needed if improved student achievement in civics is to be realized.

Idaho's founding fathers recognized the link between education and civic participation when they wrote into the state constitution that the "stability of a republican form of government [depends] mainly upon the intelligence of the people ..."

That is as true today as it was in 1890. Democracy can flourish only when an informed citizenry takes part in the process, and that will happen when schools have support for their civic mission.

Dr. Marilyn Howard is the former superintendent of public instruction for Idaho. She now serves nationally on the boards for the National Center for Learning and Citizenship and the Campaign for the Civic Mission for Schools, and locally as a board member and education committee chair for the Idaho Human Rights Education Center.

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