Civics Kept Out of Classrooms
In this post-9/11 world, President Bush declared recently, it is vital school children learn civics and make our democracy stronger. It is also in the best interest of youth to understand how our government works and how they can influence its decisions. California, however, denies students the opportunity. And while some states may do better, others suffer many of the same problems found in California.
At nearly every grade level, the California Department of Education requires social studies teachers to teach nothing but history. The two exceptions are 9th and 12th grades. 9th grade students are offered geography instead. In 12th grade, students are allowed one semester of economics and one semester of civics. By 12th grade, however, some students have dropped out of school. Others are too focused on college to care about their current classes. And some 12th-graders have already voted without ever having learned about current events, public policy, or the role of those government offices up for election.
Worse yet, their 12th grade civics teacher will have little knowledge of civics. To earn a California teaching credential in social studies, a would-be teacher must demonstrate expertise in history and geography, but only minimal knowledge of government.
There are two ways a teaching candidate can prove he is "subject matter competent." One way is to take more than 60 units of classes approved by the state for this purpose. At San Jose State University, only one of these 22 classes examines American government. The rest cover such topics as "History of Japan Since 1750," "19th Century Latin American History," 2 required courses on California history, and 3 on geography. For someone who holds a Bachelor's Degree in political science, this route to teaching presents more work than earning a Master's Degree - the sole requirement to teach at a community college. Needless to say, a political scientist is tempted to ignore the needs of high schools and become a college teacher, enjoying higher pay, shorter work hours, more academic freedom, and more prestige. But this means abandoning all those students who never make it to college.
The other way a would-be teacher can prove "subject matter competence" is to pass the California Subject Examination for Teachers. One-third of this test covers geography. Another one-third covers advanced history. A mere one-ninth of the test relates to civics.
California does not require civics teachers to know the difference between the Electoral College and the al-Qaeda Network. It does require them to know about the empires of west Africa prior to A.D. 1500.
America enjoys publicly-funded schools because Thomas Jefferson believed democracy could not function without a well-informed electorate. How well does California inform its citizens before they start voting?
I recently spent a few days sitting in an 8th grade social studies class. At this grade-level, students are supposed to learn about the birth of our nation and the forging of our Constitution. This is the one time before 12th grade when students might learn something about the structure of our government and how that structure effects us today. But these students learned only names and dates.
I asked several students, "If you could change one thing about this class or about this school, what would it be?" Popular answers included, "No homework," and "Nicer teachers." Equally popular, though, was the wish to learn something about current events, something to help them make sense of the evening news, or something that at least related to their lives. They saw this class offering nothing more than a collection of old stories irrelevant to their world. The teacher admitted to me that, while he loved history, he wasn't excited about government, and he saw little place for current events in his class.
I also spoke recently to a man who teaches both 9th and 11th grade social studies. I asked if his students learned anything about the new Department of Homeland Security or about the USA PATRIOT Act. My question surprised him. "Not in my classes," he said.
So where can students learn? Newspapers are written for those already familiar with the basic workings of government and with the current issues. Talk radio is unreliable, hosted by entertainers rather than experts. A few parents have the knowledge and time and communication skills to help their children make sense of the world. The rest of California's youth have nowhere to look.
Students with minds full of questions about the world around them have to wait until 12th grade to learn anything about their government and are lucky if current events are even mentioned. When they finally get that one-semester civics class, it is taught by someone who knows more about ancient history than about civics. Teachers who have studied our government either teach college students or they teach children in another state where the requirements for teaching are less narrow. California's children get robbed.