Can you name the party that has control over the House of Representatives? How about the five freedoms afforded to you by the First Amendment, or how many amendments are included in the Bill of Rights? What about the bill’s purpose?
It’s quite likely not all of you could answer all of these questions — it’s possible some of you couldn’t even answer one of them.
Yet these are just the bare-boned basics of Understanding How Your Government Works 101. If you struggled with these questions, how do you expect to know what options you have if a bill is proposed that you believe to be unconstitutional, if you’re turned away at the polls for a seemingly illegitimate reason or if an elected official is abusing his or her power?
The sad truth is that in 2010, only 27 percent of 12th grade students preparing for college tested at or above proficient levels of civic knowledge. Nearly a quarter of these college-bound students were deemed to have less than the basic knowledge in civics. This means they were unable to answer questions like “identify the effect of U.S. foreign policy on other nations” or “identify the meaning of a Supreme Court opinion.”
When these scores from the National Assessment of Educational Progress were released, national leaders in education erupted in a fit of dismay, concerned our country’s students couldn’t even identify the most basic principles of the democracy guiding the nation in which they live. With this dilemma in mind, I worry our generation is ill-prepared to perform its civic duties and contribute to society in a meaningful way.
So when Washington, D.C. municipal lawmakers introduced a plan last week that suggests cutting the high school graduation requirement that obliges students to take and pass a basic civics course on the key principles of American government, I was floored. While the proposal is still in its infancy and is open for debate, the very notion our lawmakers would even consider cutting this critical component of our education is absurd.
D.C. public education leaders suggest the proposed changes to graduation requirements — which also call for giving academic credit for extracurricular activities such as team sports and art and music study — will help the district cope with its omnipresent crisis of graduating less than two-thirds of its students in four years.
After spending time this past summer working with some of D.C.’s high schoolers, I can entirely sympathize with the D.C. State Board of Education’s intentions. But the solution to the problem there — and in cities throughout the country facing the same battles — is not to simply throw their hands up in despair and hand students a free pass in order to up the graduation rates.
The fact our nation’s capital — perhaps the best city in the country to learn and experience civic engagement in action — is considering minimizing the importance of civic education is worrisome. The potential for a consequential trend is dangerous.
The situation in Washington, D.C., calls for a greater look at comprehensive education reform throughout the country. Clearly, the current model of public education is not getting the job done. By avoiding the subject of education reform entirely, lawmakers are failing students. Without comprehensive reform, students throughout the country will continue to achieve mediocre scores on civic knowledge exams because they will not know the most basic principles of our government.
The result is the competency of a large portion of our generation to perform as productive members of society will be called into question. Civic education is a key measure in maintaining an informed and active citizenry, and to allow it to get swept to the wayside would be a true shame, with endless ramifications harmful to a constructive society.
Pamela Selman ([email protected]) is a senior majoring in journalism and political science.