Conveying civics

Advocates call for more focus on subject

Brandi Johnson, 7, receives help from second-grade teacher Erin Gilliam during a "Christmas around the world" exercise recently at Metcalfe Elementary School. Students learned how Christian celebrations in Iraq, Mexico, Philippines and Sweden differed from the United States.

DARON DEAN/Special to The Sun
Published: Saturday, January 3, 2004 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 3, 2004 at 12:47 a.m.
When U.S. soldiers captured former Iraqi ruler Saddam Hussein last month, Eastside High School teacher Henry Couch took it as an opportunity to discuss current events with his students.
But not everyone in 12th-grade economics was ready for the discussion.
"Two kids didn't know who Saddam Hussein was," Couch said.
Instead of being the exceptions, Couch said he sees more high school seniors who don't know basic facts, such as: which countries fought on what side during World War II, the importance of St. Augustine to U.S. history and the relationship between the Gettysburg address and the Civil War.
"The biggest problem is getting these kids engaged," he said. "Their interest level is so limited."
Social studies advocates are calling for more attention on their subjects, especially in light of numerous national surveys that conclude young people have become increasingly disengaged in the political process.
The reason it's crucial to beef up civics curriculum in schools is because studies show it fosters more participation in local politics, advocates say.
Students who leave school systems lacking basic civics knowledge creates amusing fodder on "The Tonight Show," where host Jay Leno draws laughs by showing how young people cannot answer simple history questions.
But social-studies educators don't get the joke.
"An uninformed citizenry is the worst enemy of a democracy," Couch said.
Advocates also say too many classroom lessons and text books contribute to a sense of historical indifference by overly focusing on America's darker moments.
Social studies is suffering from "not being taught," said Diane Yendol-Silva, assistant professor of teacher education at the University of Florida.
Yendol-Silva has researched what she describes as the declining presence of social studies curriculum at many elementary schools, primarily because of the emphasis on reading and mathematics in state and national standardized testing.
In Florida, social studies is not included as a subject test area in the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test.
Students are tested in reading and math from grade three through grade 10, and high schoolers must pass both 10th-grade exams in order to graduate. Students also are tested in writing and science in three grades each.
Social studies educators say their subject would benefit from being tested, too, recognizing the role the FCAT plays in how classroom priorities are set.
"In the state of Florida, we operate in the dark," said Jack Bovee, legislative chair of the Florida Council for the Social Studies.
"We don't know what our students know about our form of government or economic system. The anecdotal data is abominable."
Bovee was referring to national surveys that say compared to previous generations, today's young people are far less interested in public issues and political discussion, less likely to vote and engage in formal political activities.
Just 32 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds voted in the 1996 and 2000 presidential elections, down from 50 percent in 1972.
Scores on the country's benchmark tests are discouraging.
The 1998 National Assessment of Educational Progress revealed that one-third of students in fourth, eighth and 12th grade could not show a basic understanding of civics at their grade level.
The same was true for fourth-graders and eighth-graders in U.S. history in 2001; high school seniors fared even worse, with nearly six in 10 scoring below "basic," meaning they lacked even partial mastery of fundamental skills.
Some examples:
  • Among fourth-graders, nearly three-fourths could not identify which level of federal government passes law. (Congress)
  • Among eighth-graders, only 35 percent knew that the number of electoral votes for each state is based on its representation in Congress.
  • Among 12th-graders, only a fourth could list two ways in which the American system is designed to prevent absolutism and arbitrary power. (The system of checks and balances prevents a certain branch of government from getting too powerful and the amendment process allows laws to be altered to fit the best needs of the citizens.)
    Elementary grades In Florida schools, social studies instruction is often left to elementary-school teachers' discretion but is required for five of six years starting in sixth grade.
    In the earliest grades the focus is for students to understand different cultures, said Debbie Gallagher, social studies specialist for Alachua County schools. Starting in third grade, students are supposed to be taught ancient world history, Florida history in fourth and U.S. history in fifth.
    "We know it's hard, with all of the pressures, to squeeze in social studies," Gallagher said. "In a perfect world, we'd have more time."
    The pressures Gallagher was referring to are largely tied to the FCAT.
    Starting in third grade, each student is tested in math and reading.
    At third grade, schools boost the reading instruction because students who fail the reading FCAT face being retained. At fourth grade, students take the FCAT writing assessment.
    At fifth grade, students take the FCAT science exam.
    How students perform on the FCAT is what determines the accountability grades each school receives from the state - and is a large part of how teachers and principals are evaluated. Gallagher said schools are looking for better ways of integrating social studies across the curriculum, such as choosing historical-themed literature for reading.
    "We're not there yet, but we're going to get better at it," she said.
    "(Social studies) is important, and teachers know that."
    Middle/high school The challenge, social studies educators say, is to make their subjects - U.S. and world history, geography, government and economics - interesting and personally relevant to older pupils.
    At middle school, students are required to take world history, geography and U.S. history.
    Charmaine Taylor, a 16th-year U.S. history teacher at Kanapaha Middle School, said student-centered instruction is key to sparking interest.
    "I try to make (history) real," she said.
    In Taylor's class, students sing "The Star-Spangled Banner" in front of the class, pretend to be colonists in mock newscasts about the Revolutionary War, act out Salem witch trials and debate about the villainy or heroism of President Andrew Jackson, among other activities.
    Eastside's Couch agreed that the "old style of lecturing does not work."
    "You have to personalize and put it at their level," he said.
    That includes use of "teachable moments" such as the second Persian Gulf War and using the 2000 presidential election as an example of why every vote counts, he said.
    When students are in high school, advanced students take four years of social studies, while many others take the minimum three required to graduate: world history, U.S. history and American government/economics.
    Couch said he advocates making social studies mandatory for four years of high school.
    An unbalanced story For some civics education advocates, devoting more time to the subject is not enough.
    The nation's schools are telling an unbalanced story of their own country, offering students plenty about America's failings but not enough about its values and freedoms, stated "Education for Democracy," a 2003 report from the nonpartisan Albert Shanker Institute.
    Based on studies of textbooks, research by authors and other reviews, the report contends students get a distorted view that their country is flawed.
    In a push to give a warts-and-all account of the struggles of democracy, schools have turned the nation's sins into the essence of the story instead of just a part of it, the report states.
    "We give the impression that the entire system is and always has been corrupt - so why be involved?" said Bovee, also social studies coordinator for Collier County schools.
    The report criticizes a lack of teaching about undemocratic societies, saying the comparison could magnify the "genius" of America's system.
    Sandi Anusavice, curriculum director for Alachua County schools, agreed that it's important for students to learn an appreciation for the country's democracy.
    But "it's not exclusively our job to do that," she said.
    "Our goal is not to tell students what to think but to help them acquire the skills to evaluate information and make well-thought judgments and decisions.
    "To help them become critical thinkers in their own right."
    Bovee said he's not sure students are being equipped with enough base knowledge to make those decisions.
    How can Americans actively check the powers of government officials if so many cannot be bothered to learn their representatives' names, he asked.
    "We've taken for granted that every generation of Americans is going to be imbued with civic virtue," Bovee said.
    "(But) if you don't get a civic mission in public schools, where else are you going to get it?"
    The Associated Press contributed to this report. Douane D. James can be reached at (352) 374-5087 or (Don't) Know much about history? Test your social studies knowledge. Answer true or false: GRADE 4 1. The main reason the Pilgrims and Puritans came to America was to build a democratic government. 2. In the United States, people who are arrested have the right to talk to a lawyer. 3. July 4 is a national holiday that celebrates the day when the American colonies declared their independence. 4. The three parts of the federal government are legislative, executive and judicial. 5. People who are legal residents of the United States but not citizens can own property. 6. Tom is able to wear lightweight clothing all year round. He probably lives near the South Pole. 1. F 2. T 3. T 4. T 5. T 6. F GRADE 8 7. The Underground Railroad was actually a series of houses owned by abolitionists who helped escaped slaves reach freedom to Northern states. 8. Florida is an example of an isthmus. 9. The number of electoral votes allotted to each state is based on its representation in Congress. 10. While the president and the State Department have some authority over foreign policy, Congress and the courts have the greatest authority. 11. In a totalitarian system there are many checks on the powers of the ruler. 12. The Lend-Lease Act, the Yalta Conference and the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima are all associated with the first World War. 7. T 8. F 9. T 10. F 11. F 12. F GRADE 12 13. The Progressive movement of 1890-1920 is best described as an anti-tariff movement led by a federation of business owners and manufacturers who wanted to promote trade abroad. 14. The phrase "Harlem Renaissance" refers to a series of urban renewal projects that were part of the Great Society program of the 1960s. 15. The religion practiced by most people who live in India is Buddhism. 16. The "Connecticut Compromise" at the Constitutional Convention in 1787 meant that Congress would have two houses, one in which state representation was based on population and one in which all states had equal representation. 17. Students objecting to a decision to locate a landfill near their school could act to prevent it from happening by appearing before the town council to request that the landfill be placed elsewhere. 18. The Supreme Court's 1905 decision in Lochner v. New York ruled that a law limiting the number of hours people could work was unconstitutional. 19. The Great Awakening of the 1730s was important because it led people in the American colonies to examine the different positions of men and women in society. 20. The Monroe Doctrine was intended to help keep the peace in Europe. 13.F 14.F 15.F 16.T 17.T 18.T 19.F 20.F
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