By Rep. Dean Urdahl
Making civics more relevant in our schools remains a top priority of mine in the Legislature. My latest proposal requires classes on that subject to be offered for credit to high school juniors or seniors.
Former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor once stated, “We are facing a crisis in civics education.” Surveys, test scores and current events support her assertion.
The national College Board reports that the most important skills correlated with success in college are computer science and the United States Constitution. But 77 percent of Americans between 18 and 34 can’t name even one of their U.S. Senators. Two-thirds of Americans can name at least one judge on American idol. Fifteen percent can name the chief justice of the Supreme Court. Two-thirds of Americans can name only one branch of our government. One-third can’t name any.
The National Association of Education Progress (NAEP), the nation’s report card, reports that our students are graduating with 23 percent proficiency in civics. In other words, over 75 percent of our graduates leave high school not knowing how our government functions.
We are failing to teach them.
The great emphasis on STEM classes (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), while important, has pushed down emphasis in social studies and civics. The federal government spends $50 per student, per year on STEM and 5 cents per student, per year on social studies.
In Minnesota we require 3.5 credits in high school for social studies. No credit is specifically assigned to civics. Most schools teach some type of civics in ninth grade, some may not teach it at all. Whatever we are doing with civics, it isn’t working.
When taught effectively, civics can equip students with the knowledge and dispositions necessary to become informed and engaged citizens. To that end, my bill, H.F. 562, requires that civics be taught for credit to juniors or seniors.
The point here is that by assigning credit, the relevance of civics and the teaching requirement is enhanced. By teaching it to juniors and seniors we would be reaching students when they are about to vote and participate in our democracy. Civics is much more relevant to students when they can see the impact on their lives. Ninth-graders have a lot of issues that don’t include concerns about active citizenship.
I urge people to contact their school boards and superintendents about this. Some may argue that there are too many electives now and they can’t fit in civics. A couple points to that: First of all, this is about teaching what students need to know, not always what they want to know. Also, I have put a provision in my bill that allows students with high-level, baccalaureate or other rigorous courses to opt out if some civics provision is in their coursework.
Plus, there are still many electives available. I know of a school that teaches civics to juniors and seniors and still offers 50 electives. Schools can easily conform to my bill and teach civics if they want to.
A quote from one report sums this up well: “Dangerously low proportions of the public understand and trust our democratic institutions. Majorities are functionally illiterate on our constitutional principles and forms. The relative neglect of civic education in the past half-century - a period of wrenching change - is one important cause of our civic and political dysfunction.”