Roger Beckett Op. Ed: Can Civics Instruction Make the Grade?

December 24, 2020

Spend more time learning what to teach and less time how to teach it

If U.S. high-school graduates don’t understand the principles of freedom and equality essential to American government, and the historical roots of these principles, how can we expect them to affirm and defend these principles as adults?

Many people are quick to blame teachers for the shortcomings of America’s schools. And the shortcomings should be obvious. The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) has shown consistently that many students, in the fields of U.S. history and government, among others, are not even mastering the basics.

For example, the most recent NAEP U.S. history exam, in 2010, found just 12 percent of all U.S. high-school seniors scoring at or above the “proficient” level, which the Institute of Education Sciences describes as the level representing “solid academic performance to which all students … should aspire.” In civics – the test covering the subject of U.S. government – the scores were somewhat better, but still, less than one fourth of all 12th graders (24 percent) performed at or above the “proficient” level.

We often hear about the need to improve education in the STEM subjects, but American students perform worse on American history tests than in any other subject.

It’s unfair to put the blame on America’s 125,000 Social Studies teachers, however.

In the 17 years I’ve been with the Ashbrook Center at Ashland University some 8,000 teachers from across the country have participated in Ashbrook educational programs. So I’ve had ample opportunity to interact with many teachers and know from first-hand experience that they’re not the problem.

The problem, experience tells us, is the way teachers are trained. Teachers spend too much time learning how to teach – the mechanics of pedagogy – and not enough time learning what to teach.

Without a major change in how teachers are taught, America will continue down the same path, raising generation after generation of students who do not understand what it means to be an American, who equate freedom of speech with “selfies,” who believe freedom of religion requires purging religion from the public square, who think our Founding Fathers – denigrated in popular culture as Dead Old White Men – are irrelevant. Sam Adams: a beer company. Washington and Lincoln: something to do with President’s Day, a holiday when everybody goes shopping. The Fourth of July: an occasion for fireworks and a cookout.

Teaching government and history involves more than just stringing together an agreed-upon chronology of significant dates and events and connecting them with names. It involves more than cursory familiarity with a handful of historically significant documents, such as the Declaration of Independence, Bill of Rights, and Emancipation Proclamation.

To successfully teach U.S. history and government, so their students understand and appreciate the principles that define our American character, teachers need to rely less on textbooks and more on the writings and thinking of those who shaped our country.

Consider civil rights. The changes in America’s mind, heart and laws over time on the subject of racial equality didn’t happen by accident. That’s why we urge (and in our Master’s Degree program require) teachers to immerse themselves in the writings of those who shaped America’s thinking.

This would include, for example, Frederick Douglass’s 1852 speech, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?,” President Lincoln’s 1854 Peoria, Ill., speech on the repeal of the Missouri Compromise, the Emancipation Proclamation and Gettysburg Address, Lincoln’s “Resolution Submitting the Thirteenth Amendment [outlawing slavery] to the States,” the texts of the U.S. Supreme Court decisions in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) and Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954), and Martin Luther King’s 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech.

Teachers who understand the importance of such documents and use them in the classroom will be better teachers.  Their students will learn more. And they’ll be better prepared for the responsibilities of citizenship as adults.

This op.ed was published across the country, most notably in The Plain Dealer on Sunday, March 29.