Making Americans: Core civics

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.

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  1. I’m pretty sure civics, history, and the like are being pushed out by “raising awareness”.

  2. Serious content started disappearing when history, geography and civics became social studies. However, the ever-increasing focus on feelings, attitudes and indoctrination has made academic endeavors ever more difficult.

  3. I supposed Mr. Sanford wouldn’t want to encumber all those young minds with irrelevancies like the Tenth Amendment.

    First thing you know some smart-alecky third grader will notice that the Constitution doesn’t delegate to the federal government the power to regulate public education so where’s the justification for Common Core will go the question? Ignoring all the eye-wash, as any reasonably bright third grader would, that Common Core’s voluntary of course.

  4. Richard Aubrey says:

    Do we have less time in the school day?
    How come it takes more time to teach reading and math up to a standard considered abysmal not so long ago?
    To make the case that the student body is different than it was fifty years ago would probably be both easy and contentious.
    Perhaps a useful study would consist in seeing where the, say, top half of the student body is. If they’re doing well by historical standards, we might know something.

  5. reading achievement has stagnated in the last 40 years.

    It’s been about 40 years since Teddy Kennedy’s immigration changes enacted in 1965 really got into full swing.

    I’m an atheist but I believe there is a hell, because if there is no hell, where is Teddy Kennedy?

  6. Content area teachers must teach the skills of studying civics and social studies. While Sanford claims, “student reading comprehension will not improve unless we teach content,” he should acknowledge and argue that reading comprehension will not improve until content-area teachers learn how to teach the comprehension skills for accessing that content. Most teachers “assign” reading, rather than teaching it. And that is the root of the problem. Until that changes, nothing else will.

  7. It seems to me observing those who make decisions about what will be taught in social studies, that they themselves bear the blame for making the subject less relevant and easily expendable.

    I must say I was very surprised when my first kid entered school, social studies was almost a content free subject. They had long units about the neighborhood but didn’t learn about one historical figure. They had so called pillars of the community come to speak to them in place of their normal social studies classes. When the kids were capable of hearing about George Washington or the civil rights movement, they were instead learning about “helpful members of the community”. It became better as time went on…but still not great.

    It seems like one of those subjects where kids from wealthier backgrounds will have a big advantage, as they will have exposure to information(through travel) that is simply not presented in school at all.

  8. Cranberry says:

    In my opinion, the Common Core should not hijack English instructional time for study of “seminal texts.” It represents a hollowing out of educational content. It represents a Least Common Denominator approach to education.

    By the Common Core’s own standards, documents such as The Federalist Papers do not belong in high school. The Federalist Papers’ Lexile level is 1450; the highest “typical grade level” Lexile levels for grades 11 & 12 is 1210 (for the 25th – 75th percentile.)

    I’m all for rigorous instruction in content, particularly in history, geography, politics and economics. Until the end of high school, though, most students won’t understand the lessons. Unless the school teaches the context and background of the nation’s founding, the Revolution and all that came after, the meaning of the American Experiment will escape most students.

    I get the feeling the parts of Common Core which strike me as most misbegotten arise from political issues. The English faculty did not defend their turf aggressively; the Social Studies faculty did. The Language Arts section was seen as a place in the curriculum to make up time–even though so many studies have shown a lessening of literacy in the population.