Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg
Social studies — including history and civics — is being crowded out of the classroom by the push to raise reading and math achievement, said Stefanie Sanford at a Manhattan Institute event on Civic Education and the Common Core. As a Fordham trustee and chief of Global Policy and Advocacy for The College Board, Sanford thinks the new standards will revive civic education.
Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1816, “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free . . . it expects what never was and never will be.” It was his strong belief in education as the bedrock of democracy that made Jefferson one of our earliest and strongest champions of public education.
The amount of time devoted to history and civics education “has been on the decline for decades,” says Sanford. Schools have shifted time from science, history, and the arts to English language arts and math. But reading achievement has stagnated in the last 40 years.
In 1971, the average reading score on the twelfth-grade NAEP was 285. In 2008, it was 286.
While the goal of improving reading achievement is noble, our efforts to do so have been misguided and have inadvertently undermined our efforts to improve civic education for two reasons.
First, student reading comprehension will not improve unless we teach content.
Research tells us that, once students have learned how to read, the best way to improve reading comprehension is to broaden students’ content knowledge and to expand their vocabulary. That means that, rather than shifting time away from history and civics, if we really want to improve reading achievement, we should redouble our efforts to teach important content. And that includes teaching U.S. history and civics.
Second, civics education cannot stand alone.
. . . civics education should be infused throughout the K–12 curriculum. Students in English classes should be asked to read and understand the Founding documents—not just for their historical significance but also for their literary merit. And they should be invited to study and analyze the great texts that are part of the Great Conversation. These are part of a well-rounded ELA curriculum, not an add-on that comes only if and when schools have time. We cannot expect to graduate a generation of culturally and historically literate American citizens unless our curriculum and instruction are infused with the great literary works that informed and drove our nation’s great history.
Sanford is the author of Civic Life in the Information Age: Politics, Technology, and Generation X.