By Anne OBrien
The importance of education cannot be overstated. Without a good education, one cannot get a good job, earn a good living, and provide for oneself and one’s family. Education is the key to individual prosperity.
And education is important to our economy. We have been hearing a lot recently about concerns that our education system is falling behind, particularly in math and science, hindering our competitiveness in the global market. The message is clear: If we don’t improve our educational system, our economy will fall apart (again).
But we have been hearing a lot less about the civic mission of our schools — and the importance of education for our democracy. Yet as Rick Hess pointed out a few weeks ago:
From the dawn of the Western tradition, dating back to Plato, Aristotle, and their contemporaries, education has been regarded as essential to the formation of good citizens and the cultivation of a proper attachment to the state. For America’s founders such as Benjamin Rush, Noah Webster, and Thomas Jefferson, one of the main functions of schools was producing democratic citizens.
I am reminded of our civic mission as the nation approaches a midterm election in the midst of an economic crisis. Voters will soon make difficult decisions on a number of issues that will shape at least the next two years in American politics.
But I have concerns about the state of civics education in America. The National Assessment of Student Progress (NAEP) test in civics found that about two out of every three students at grades 4 (73 percent), 8 (70 percent) and 12 (66 percent) have at least a basic knowledge of civics. But when you look at proficiency, the situation seems grim: just about 24 percent of students are considered proficient (24 percent of fourth graders, 22 percent of eighth graders, and 27 percent of twelfth graders). These students will become voters who have to make important decisions every election — but only about 24 percent have a proficient understanding of civics? It’s a bit scary.
Combine NAEP data with a recent American Enterprise Institute (AEI) study on what social studies teachers think and do. Findings I found particularly interesting: 83 percent of these teachers say it is absolutely essential for high schools to teach students “to identify the protections guaranteed by the Bill of Rights.” Just 64 percent deem it absolutely essential for high schools to teach students “to understand such concepts as federalism, separation of powers, and checks and balances.” And consider how that plays out in student knowledge — NAEP found that only 5 percent of twelfth graders could explain checks on the president’s power.
This lack of civics knowledge could have dire consequences. Our nation is designed for the participation of the people. If our citizens don’t understand how it works, how can we make the right decisions? We have to do better in teaching our children about our nation and its government.