Vote? Kids ask, why bother?

Schools combat political apathy with civics class - minus the snooze

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

The dullest course in school - civics - is headed for a major overhaul. No more pop quizzes on the committee assignments of local legislators or cardboard flow charts on how a bill becomes a law - forgotten before the paste dries.

What's driving calls for change is a growing concern that American students don't value citizenship. Johnny doesn't vote. Or bother to learn useful information about public life. Or grasp why a democracy might be worth fighting for.

At a time when Americans are crisscrossing former communist states with advice on how to develop democracy, they're losing a generation at home. And experts say that poor teaching may be part of the problem.

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Although more and more students are participating in community service (much of it required), they are "less and less involved in civic life," says John Pickerall, who is directing a citizenship project for the Denver-based Education Commission of the States.

"We're looking at a civic disconnect in this country, and the question is: How can pedagogy narrow the divide?"

Many public schools don't even teach civics. While many state constitutions say that a major purpose of education is to produce effective citizens, in fact, 19 states require no civic education of any kind. "The great gods in American education have been math and reading. But reading and math alone won't keep our democracy going. We need people who understand it, and we neglect that at our peril," says Margaret Branson, associate director for the Center for Civic Education in Calabasas, Calif.

A lack of enthusiasm

Fewer than 1 in 3 young people (18 to 20 years old) voted in the last presidential election. And the last national survey of achievement in civics - the 1988 National Assessment of Academic Progress - signaled a sharp decline in scores among high school students. (Results of the 1998 NAEP civics assessment will be released on Nov. 18.)

Part of the problem is that even when civics is taught, it's often not taught well. The 1988 NAEP survey reported that the main method of teaching civics had been reading from a textbook in class.

Yet states that tried to break out of the textbook mode often wound up teaching civics as a version of Trivial Pursuit.

For example, Maryland's 1985 high school civics curriculum guide is packed with handouts, worksheets, and drills on facts of government. Teachers are urged to develop fun-packed sessions on how a bill becomes a law.

"Students would cram all of this information into their heads and then forget it right after the test," says Damon Monteleone, who teaches civics at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School in Maryland.

Subsequently, there's been a flurry of resolutions and blue-ribbon panels on how to improve civics instruction - and a surprising consensus on what needs to be done.

Pitched battles between conservatives and multiculturalists scuttled efforts to define a national history standard. But both groups easily backed the national civics framework adopted by the National Assessment Governing Board in 1996. This framework was used to develop the 1998 NAEP civics test, and many states are using it to redefine their own civics standards.

The new standard emphasizes civic knowledge, civic skills, and civic dispositions, or "habits of the heart." The challenge now is how to bring these skills into the classroom.

Linking knowledge with activities

"One thing that civics education should not be is a static presentation of information about government. Information ought to be presented in such a way that there is an invitation to use that information to respond to public issues. It's this kind of dynamic civic education - where knowledge is learned in order to be used by a critical thinker and active citizen - that is at the heart of what citizenship is all about," says John Patrick, professor in the school of education at Indiana University at Bloomington, who helped develop the new civics framework.

The initiative by the Education Commission of the States is exploring how to integrate service learning and civics education. The Center for Civic Education is expanding its own "We the People" civics program, which includes understanding and debating issues in founding documents.

Similarly, the new Maryland civics guide provides a richer curriculum that focuses on why democratic institutions evolved the way they did. Debate replaces rote recall.

"I'd like to hear your ideas about where our government came from. Did we make it up out of thin air?" Mr. Monteleone asks his ninth-grade civics class. They talk about ancient Greece and Rome, and then move on to a discussion of Hobbes and Locke - from the original texts.

Recently, 221 college and university presidents endorsed a resolution to reaffirm citizenship as a part of higher education. "Surveys show that young people don't see participation in a democracy as the way to change things," says Elizabeth Hollander, executive director of Campus Compact, a group working on civic responsibility in higher education.

"One of the things we've thought about is whether we can we help influence that by having civic education requirements to get into college," she adds.

*Send e-mail comments to chaddockg@csps.com

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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