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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

Fuzzy civics: Teachers don't value knowledge

I learned about separation of powers, checks and balances and the three separate and equal branches of government -- executive, legislative and judicial -- in eighth grade.

When the president signs an executive order because he can't persuade Congress to pass a law, when pundits claim the U.S. Supreme Court isn't the supreme authority on interpreting the Constitution, I think back to the Constitution Test, which we had to pass to get into high school. It's useful stuff.

But only 23 percent of public school teachers see"knowledge of social, political, and civic institutions” as one of the three primary aims of civic education, according to a RAND survey conducted in late 2021. Only 41 percent put "knowledge of citizens’ rights and responsibilities” in the top three.

"What teachers do seem to embrace is a vision of civic education which looks a lot like a content-free celebration of self-actualization," writes Rick Hess, who analyzes the RAND survey in Forbes. It's fuzzy civics.

The most commonly cited aim for civic education, endorsed by two-thirds of teachers, is “promoting students’ critical and independent thinking.” The only other aim named by even half of teachers was “developing students’ skills and competencies in conflict resolution.”
. . . Meanwhile, just 11 percent of educators thought a top-three priority was developing students’ capacity to defend their point of view and only 4 percent said the same of preparing students for future political engagement. . . . If civic education doesn’t involve preparing students to defend their views or engage responsibly in democratic decision-making, just what kind of critical thinking does it entail?

Few teachers see their job as promoting environmental or anti-racist activism, the survey showed.

But students will not be prepared to "engage in crucial debates regarding the proper size of government, the role of the courts, or the right way to balance democratic participation against concerns for election integrity," writes Hess. Thinking about these issues requires "historical understanding and substantive knowledge."

Colorado's state education board voted 4-3 last week to reject American Birthright, a set of K–12 social studies standards, that the Democratic majority said was too conservative, reports Erica Meltzer on Chalkbeat.

“These standards are too extreme for the state of Colorado,” said Democratic board member Lisa Escárcega, explaining her vote against the American Birthright standards.
American Birthright calls out project-based learning, inquiry-based learning, social emotional learning, current events, civic engagement, and any teaching that promotes diversity, equity, inclusion, or social justice as harmful to learning.
. . . Republican board member Joyce Rankin countered that students aren’t getting the grounding in facts they need to engage in more advanced thinking. Rankin described the results of word searches she had done on Colorado civics standards and American Birthright.

American Birthright is a project of the Civics Alliance, a coalition "formed to oppose a “new civics” more centered on global citizenship and activism than on understanding American ideals and responsibilities," writes Meltzer.

The National Association of Scholars, which helped create the standards, issued a statement saying, "Colorado’s board members have paved the way for American Birthright to be considered equally seriously in states around the nation—and to be adopted."

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