A third of high school seniors lack basic grasp of civics, US government
America's students are largely uninformed about the democratic process and US government, especially high school seniors, according to civics scores from the Nation's Report Card.
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“The need to focus on who is getting what learning opportunities is key,” says Joseph Kahne, director of the Civic Engagement Research Group at Mills College in Oakland, Calif. Professor Kahne says his research shows that high-achieving and white students are far more likely to get the “best” civics education – debate opportunities, service learning, simulations – than lower achieving or minority students, despite evidence that such students benefit enormously.Skip to next paragraph
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“It’s true that the amount of time going to civics is in some cases being cut back,” he says, “but we’re also not coming close to making the most of the opportunities we have.”
The NAEP exams never address the causes of students’ performance, but the civics exam did survey teachers and students about what topics they covered.
The data don’t indicate that what has been taught has changed much over the past decade, but do indicate possible missed opportunities in instruction.
Just 68 percent of high school seniors discussed political parties, elections, and voting in 2010, for instance, despite the fact that it was an election year and the students were either already or close to voting age.
“When we don’t teach our nation’s youth about what it means and how to participate in a democracy, it’s not only a disservice to these young people, but to our country,” says Heather Smith, president of Rock the Vote, which tries to engage young people in voting. “The most common reason why a young person in this country today does not participate is because they don’t know enough.”
Ms. Smith noted that Rock the Vote is now directing attention at high schoolers, rather than just to young people already of voting age, and has had enormous interest from teachers and students. And former Justice O’Connor founded iCivics a year ago, a Web-based civics education program designed to get students engaged – in many cases through games – in thinking about how government works.
The programs, says Mr. Quigley, are out there. The challenge is often getting them in schools, and particularly in front of the students who need them most.
“Studies have shown that African-American and Hispanic students and those not planning to go to college receive fewer effective civics opportunities,” Quigley says. “This is ironic in the fact of abundant evidence that when these students do receive these opportunities, they perform as well as anybody else.”