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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

Educating citizens: We can do better, but will we?

Credit: Norman Rockwell/SEPS

"The new National Assessment of Educational Progress civics and history results are as deplorable as they were predictable," writes Fordham's Checker Finn. He has ideas on how to do a better job of educating citizens.

It starts with the diagnosis:

Most states have low, vague and "lousy" standards for history and civics, as Fordham reported in 2021.

Second, as a recent RAND study found, social studies suffers from "incoherent curricula, lack of teacher support, meager instructional time, ill-prepared teachers and an absence of accountability."

Third, history and civics are "often submerged in a 'social studies' muddle that may be as much about pop-sociology and psychology as essential information and analytic skills," Finn writes. Curricular materials "are mostly mediocre, the good ones are little used, and some popular texts are pretty awful."

Many teachers don't know much about history and civics, he writes.

Typical certification requirements for social studies teachers include a smattering of “content” courses in any of the half-dozen disciplines that fall under this heading . . . a history teacher may have studied very little history and a civics teacher (who may also be the gym teacher) could have majored in anthropology.

Finally, students don't spend much time on history and civics.

Many groups are trying to work on this. Finn links to Educating for American Democracy's “roadmap for excellence in history and civics," the Democratic Knowledge Project's Reimagining Civic Education and Our Common Purpose.

We need "solid standards, robust infrastructure, quality curricula, well-prepared teachers, time-on-task and results-driven accountability," he writes.

We also need NAEP to step up by testing fourth and 12th-graders -- not just eighth-graders -- in history and civics and providing state-level data.

"That all this matters to the nation’s future is self-evident," Finn concludes. "That we will go beyond garment-rending and teeth-gnashing is less so."

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