Should everyone take citizenship exam?

Immigrants seeking U.S. citizenship must pass a simple exam on civics and history facts. In Arizona and North Dakota, all students will have to pass the citizenship exam to qualify for a high school diploma.

Requiring the citizenship test is a good idea, editorializes USA Today.

Some questions are easy or trivial. But many about voting, the First Amendment, states’ rights and the Supreme Court offer jumping-off points for enticing discussions about current events. . . . The test can provide a floor on civics learning. It doesn’t have to set the ceiling.

One in three native-born citizens failed the test, according to a 2012 Xavier survey of adults.  (Quiz yourself here.)

The test trivializes civics education, responds Peter Levine, associate dean for research at Tufts’ College of Citizenship and Public Service.  It’s easy to memorize the right answers with a little cramming.

More than 90 percent of high school graduates have taken a semester-long civics course and most have devoted a year to studying U.S. history, Levine writes.

Then why do so many adults fail basic questions about the U.S. political system? Because we have forgotten what we learned in civics class. Too often, the subject wasn’t inspiring or challenging and didn’t build habits of following and discussing the news.

The problem with civics is not that we fail to teach it. The problem is that civics is often viewed as a set of disconnected facts, not as a challenging and inspiring subject that will continue to interest us after high school.

For example, the citizenship exam asks how many constitutional amendments have been passed, writes Levine. “You don’t need to understand reasons for or against those amendments, or have any sense of why they were important” as long as you’ve memorized the right answer, which is 27. 

Required civics classes and tests have little impact, if students don’t go “deeper,” argues a Jobs for the Future paper. Some students — usually the collegebound — “participate in high-quality service learning programs, collaborative research projects, student-produced newspapers, classroom debates, mock trials, model legislatures, and the like.” Most students don’t learn much that’s memorable.

My uncle and aunt helped a young Chinese friend study for the citizenship exam. The three of them knew the line of succession to the presidency down to the postmaster general. Which is trivia. If we strengthened the exam for new Americans, it might serve as a useful screen for high school students. Otherwise, it’s an absurdly low bar.

Arizona: Know basic civics to earn a diploma

Arizona students will need to pass a civics test — the same one given to would-be citizens — to earn a high school diploma.

Stephanie Parra, a member of the Phoenix Union High School District governing board, said the requirement will waste time and money, reports NPR. “Having students memorize and regurgitate facts is not going to get to the goal of what we want to accomplish here, which is retaining the importance and value of what American civics education should be,” Parra said.

Translation: Knowledge is useless.

In Model Citizens, Robert Pondiscio calls the requirement “a no-brainer in more ways than one.”

The naturalization test requires very basic knowledge:

What are the first ten amendments to the Constitution called?
Name two rights in the Declaration of Independence.
Why do some states have more representatives than others?
Who is the governor of your state now?
How old do citizens have to be to vote for President?
Who is the President of the United States?

Applicants for citizenship — and now Arizona 12th graders — need only get 60 percent of the questions right.

In 2010, the pass rate among those seeking naturalization was 97.5 percent according to a Xavier University study. Yet more than one in three native-born citizens fail when asked to show even that rock-bottom, basic level of civic knowledge. Raise the bar to seven out of ten for a passing and 50 percent fail.

. . . Serious People in Education cluck at the citizenship test. It’s just trivial pursuit, they say. It’s no substitute for deep engagement in civics and citizenship.

“If you graduate from a U.S. high school without being able to name one of your senators, any war fought in the 1900s, or the name of a single American Indian tribe, something has gone seriously wrong,” responds Pondiscio.

I had to memorize the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution as part of a test on the U.S. and Illinois Constitutions to collect my junior high diploma. (Those who failed were allowed to retake the test multiple times.) I think I could do the Preamble today, nearly 50 years later.  “We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity . . . “

Common Core no more

As Common Core controversy mounts, several states are renaming the education standards, reports Fox News.

Common Core is now  “The Iowa Core” in the Hawkeye State. In Florida, it’s “Next Generation Sunshine State Standards.”

Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer signed an executive order to erase the name “Common Core.” Instead, officials will refer to “Arizona’s College and Career Ready Standards.’’

Other states may follow suit. “We will probably do something really silly like changing the name of it to something else”to confuse opponents, said Louisiana Rep. Walt Leger, D-New Orleans.

Arizona ban spurs interest in Chicano studies

Tucson schools were forced to drop Mexican-American Studies classes after a state law banned courses that are “designed for a specific ethnic group,” advocate “ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals” or fan “racial resentment.” This month, a federal judge upheld the Arizona law.

The ban has revived interest in ethnic studies, according to the Los Angeles Times.

“Underground” libraries with Chicano literature are popping up across the Southwest and are set to open soon in unexpected places such as Milwaukee and Louisville.

. . . “It was only until it was banned that I really took this seriously and recognized the need,” said (Raquel) Velasquez, a 19-year-old originally from Tucson. She is one of 14 students at Prescott College taking a pedagogy class to help train them to become ethnic studies teachers.

Curtis Acosta now teaches English rather than Mexican American Studies at a Tucson high school. On Sundays, he teaches a Chicano literature class at a youth center. Ten students enrolled. Donations pay their tuition and Prescott College has offered college credits.

Bianca Sierra, a high school senior, said she’d never studied Chicano literature.

She says she likes her Sunday class better than her classes at school because she can relate to its subject matter on a personal level. For example, books she reads in her Chicano literature class have characters with names similar to those of her mother and grandmother or mention foods similar to those prepared in her home.

. . .  Instead of simply listening to the teacher lecture, the students gather in a circle and, along with Acosta, discuss and debate the subject matter.

“I like it because it makes me feel more invested in it, because they are asking you, ‘What is your opinion?’ I was never asked what my opinion was on an issue [in class]. You’re just not asked that in regular school,” she said.

No Chicano novels in the English curriculum? Were they all ghetto-ized in the ethnic studies class? And Tucson teachers never let students express opinions?

Choice rules: Red tape or red herring?

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Most private schools will participate in choice programs, even if they’re held accountable for students’ achievement, concludes a new Fordham study, School Choice Regulations: Red Tape or Red Herring? Only 25 percent of schools listed state testing requirements as very or extremely important to their decision about whether to participate, but more than half worry about preserving their admissions criteria and religious practices. Fifty-eight percent of non-participating schools cited paperwork burdens and mandatory open-enrollment policies as important factors.

Fordham looked at 13 different school choice models and found very different regulatory burdens. Arizona’s “individual” tax credit scholarship is the least burdened by regulation, while Milwaukee’s long-running voucher program “has accumulated more rules as it has grown older and larger.”

Tax-credit programs will maximize participation by private schools, but “lose a measure of accountability,” researchers conclude.

A record 255,000 children are using vouchers and tax-credit scholarships to attend private school, according to The ABCs of School Choice by the Friedman Foundation For Educational Choice. “The ABCs” describes the 39 private school choice programs in 21 states and Washington, D.C.

The education election

The status quo was a big winner, writes Rick Hess in his election wrap-up.

Those edu-advocates who’ve been telling themselves that an Obama win would mean a big infusion of dollars are going to be disappointed– the size of the deficit, the GOP majority in the House, the need to deal with Pell, the impending costs of the Affordable Care Act, and the rest mean that there won’t be big new dollars for education initiatives, no matter how often the President says nice things about edu-investment and workforce initiatives.

. . . The next few years may be something of a slog for folks at ED, as they have to do the tedious work of trying to monitor Race to the Top and waiver commitments, while figuring out how to be impactful when they don’t have much new money to spend . . .

It will be interesting to see who quits the Education Department, Hess writes.

If Indiana Superintendent Tony Bennett’s re-election campaign was “a referendum on reform,”  as Fordham’s Mike Petrilli put it, reform lost. Bennett, a Republican who championed tougher teacher evaluations and school accountability, was upset by teacher Glenda Ritz, a Democrat.

Bennett was a reform “stud,” writes Hess. Teachers’ union opposition wouldn’t have been enough to defeat Bennett in “deep red” Indiana. He also faced opposition from Tea Party conservatives over his support for Common Core State Standards, which they call “Obamacore.”

Intentionally or not, the Obama administration has politicized the Common Core and, in so doing, is making it dangerous for elected Republicans in red states to support it. And, trust me, a lot of GOP state school board members, education committee members, and state chiefs are aware of what happened to Bennett.

Ed Week looks at Arne Duncan’s five big challenges in the next term. “Duncan will have to walk a fine line between supporting states as they implement common standards and tests, and, in the words of Checker Finn, not “loving them to death.”

The Obama-Duncan education reforms are at risk, writes Rishawn Biddle on Dropout Nation. No ChIld Left Behind waivers are letting traditionalists and suburban districts gut accountability. He hopes Obama and Duncan will work with congressional leaders on both sides to revise No Child and expand accountability. But he’s not holding his breath.

School choice lost in Florida, where voters rejected a measure that would have let parents use school vouchers at religious schools.

However, Georgia approved a special commission to authorize new charters.

After turning down charter schools three times, voters in Washington state narrowly passed a charter school measure which will let 40 charters open statewide in the next five years. A majority of parents or teachers could “trigger” the conversion of a traditional public school into a charter.

In Idaho, where Romney won in a landslide, voters repealed the “Students Come First” laws, agreeing with teachers’ unions. It was “a stunning rebuke” to Republican Gov. Butch Otter and Superintendent Tom Luna, writes the Idaho Statesman.

– 57 percent opposed to restrictions on teachers unions in Prop 1.

— 58 percent voted no on Prop 2, which paid teacher bonuses based on student test scores and other measures.

— 67 percent rejected a mandate for laptops and online credits for every Idaho high school student.

In red-hot South Dakota, two-thirds of voters rejected Gov. Dennis Daugaard’s plan to “give bonuses to top teachers, phase out tenure and recruit candidates for critical teaching jobs,” reports KSFY-ABC.

Michigan voters rejected a union-sponsored measure protecting collective-bargaining rights.

Maryland voters approved in-state tuition for undocumented immigrants.

To my surprise, California voters approved a tax increase billed as the only way to keep schools open. A political contributions initiative aimed at unions failed.

In Arizona, a sales tax extension to fund schools went down to defeat.

How strong are teachers’ unions?

Hawaii’s teachers’ union is the strongest in the nation, followed by Oregon, Montana and Pennsylvania, according to Fordham’s analysis. Arizona has the weakest teachers’ unions, followed by Florida and South Carolina.

More choices, more lawsuits

If 2011 was the year of school choice — including tax-credit scholarships, education savings accounts, charters and vouchers — 2012 was the year of school choice lawsuits, notes Education Next.

Many of the laws, including Indiana’s voucher program, Arizona’s savings accounts, and a new voucher program in Douglas County, Colorado, were challenged in court shortly after passage. These legal challenges stalled reform and kept the school choice movement fighting for a clear identity. Is school choice just for certain student groups, like low-income children, or can it actually change the public school system?

For some laws, such as Indiana’s, a legal challenge did not prevent thousands of students from participating in the program’s first year. In other cases, as with Colorado’s voucher initiative, courts shut down the program just as the school year began, leaving hundreds of students uncertain as to whether they could remain at their new schools.

“Legal challenges to school-choice programs have become as inevitable and painful as death and taxes,” says Clint Bolick, vice president for litigation at the Phoenix-based Goldwater Institute.

Ruling: Ethnic studies classes break Arizona law

Tucson schools must drop Mexican-American Studies or lose 10 percent of state funding, ruled an administrative law judge, who found the ethnic classes violate Arizona law. The 2010 law bans courses that are “designed for a specific ethnic group” or advocate “ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals.” It also bans fanning “racial resentment.”

Ignoring the history of  “oppression and racism” will promote resentment, a school district witness testified. But Judge Lewis Kowal found the classes went beyond “teaching oppression objectively” to “actively presenting material in a biased, political, and emotionally charged manner.”

“Teaching in such a manner promotes social or political activism against the white people, promotes racial resentment, and advocates ethnic solidarity, instead of treating pupils as individuals,” Kowal wrote. He cited a lesson that taught students that the historic treatment of Mexican-Americans was “marked by the use of force, fraud and exploitation,” and a parent’s complaint that one of her daughters, who was white, was shunned by Latino classmates after a government course was taught “in an extremely biased manner.”

A group of teachers are challenging the law in federal court, arguing it was motivated by “a racial bias and anti-Hispanic beliefs and sentiments.”

Some A+ schools get C’s in new grading system

Some of Arizona’s 62  A+ schools became C schools under a new rating system. The Arizona Educational Foundation’s system relies on a comprehensive set of criteria, while the state’s new system is based on test scores and progress.