Why Michigan wants to make reading the US Constitution mandatory

Michigan is the latest to enter the US debate on how to educate high school students on important national documents, like the Declaration of Independence.

The Christian Science Monitor/File
A copy of the Constitution of the United States of America is seen in this file photo.

If you want to graduate from high school in Arizona or North Dakota, you must pass a US citizenship test.

And if Michigan lawmakers have their way, students will be required to read important documents like the United States Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, and the Michigan Constitution.

Joining a nationwide effort to boost civic education, Michigan state senators have sponsored a bill, Senate Bill 209, that would make reading actual documents, like the Constitution, rather than reading about them, mandatory in schools.

"My big push is to make sure we're actually reading the core documents," State Sen. Patrick Colbeck, who sponsored the bill, told local Michigan news MLive.

Students are taught interpretations of the documents rather than reading the actual text, Colbeck told MLive. For example, students are taught that the Constitution guarantees a democracy, when in fact it guarantees a republican form of government. Reading the actual documents would allow students to make their own interpretations and equip them to understand and debate issues in the national news, he added.

With its proposal, Michigan is joining a nationwide trend to increase civic education at a time when some worry that students know more about LeBron James than James Madison. 

In fact, one in three Americans fails the Naturalization Civics Test.

And as the Monitor reported in an earlier piece, a 2011 survey by The University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg Public Policy Center found that just 15 percent of Americans could correctly identify the chief justice of the US Supreme Court as John Roberts, only 13 percent knew the US Constitution was signed in 1787, and only 38 percent were able to name all three branches of government.

That may be due in part to federal policies like No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, which research suggests, have led states to shift educational resources away from social studies toward subjects that appear on statewide assessments.

A number of states are combating that with their own civics requirements.

Arizona and North Dakota became the first states to require students to pass a civics test to graduate from high school, and at least ten other states are considering similar measures.

But critics have questioned whether tests improve civic engagement.

"The interest is promoting civics, and we want to see students engaged,” Joe Thomas, a high school government teacher from Mesa, Ariz., told the Associated Press earlier this year. "I don't know if a test engages students."

As the Washington Post pointed out, the current naturalization civics test asks questions like, "Where is the Statue of Liberty?" and "What ocean is east of the United States?"

"[A]re landmarks and names really what the citizens need to know about what makes them American?" asked the Post's Suzanne Dovi.

One alternative educators have suggested is engaging students in debates around controversial current events.

As Marya Levenson, director of the education program at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., and a former high school civics teacher, told the Monitor late last year, “The controversies are what really engage our students. We need to present multiple sides and ask our students to think themselves about how they would begin to resolve it."

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