Civics education

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(Host) The importance of “civics education” was recently endorsed by the Vermont Legislature. Commentator Allen Gilbert fears that while the endorsement is well-intentioned, it’s a bit hollow.

(Gilbert) Joint resolutions passed by the Legislature are usually accolades or memorials that draw little interest or controversy. So it’s not surprising that scant attention was paid to Joint Resolution 65 when it passed both chambers the other week. But behind the resolution is a story that stretches back a dozen years. The story speaks to what some feel is the cornerstone of America’s public schools.

Joint Resolution 65 endorses the notion that Vermont schoolchildren should be taught civics. It’s hard to disagree with that. But imagine if the Legislature had passed a resolution saying that Vermont schoolchildren should be taught math. Or English. Or science. Such resolutions would seem ridiculous. We all know that those subjects are important – so important that the Legislature has adopted comprehensive tests that schoolchildren must take in math, English, and science. The results of those tests must, by law, be reported annually by school boards to their communities. Schools can be shut down if, over time, students don’t do well on the tests.

Civics, though, is outside the state’s comprehensive test system. That’s ironic, because educators behind the common school movement of the 19th century thought that civics was the one subject that had to be taught if American democracy were to survive.

Vermont’s comprehensive assessment system was developed a dozen years ago. “Social studies” was to be the fourth subject in which students would be regularly tested, and the results reported to their communities.

But that never happened. Standards and assessments were developed for math, English, and then science. But social studies never made it out of the workshop. Educators simply couldn’t agree on what was important to teach, and test, in social studies.

This disagreement wasn’t unique to Vermont. Around the country, people fought over the importance of students’ knowing specific dates compared to understanding broad themes. They argued over whether kids should memorize the preamble to the Constitution or understand what Lincoln meant when he said that all men are created equal. They disagreed over whether America’s westward expansion was manifest destiny, or genocide of the native American population.

Last year, Vermont’s effort to develop a comprehensive statewide social studies assessment was officially abandoned. State education officials still insist that social studies assessments are important. Local schools are supposed to develop them. But it’s often the case in education that if you don’t test it, it doesn’t count. And without a statewide social studies assessment, social studies doesn’t count – at least not on the same plane as math, English, and science.

I’m glad that the Legislature passed Joint Resolution 65. I’m glad that school kids are encouraged to visit the Statehouse and to meet with their legislators. But learning about one’s rights and responsibilities in a democratic society requires much more than a field trip to Montpelier. It’s hard work. Our kids should know that we value civics every bit as much as math, English, and science. I’m not sure that’s the message that they’re getting right now.

This is Allen Gilbert.

Allen Gilbert is a writer and parent. He is executive director of a statewide civil liberties organization.

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