New York Post
From the first hot dog to the last firework bursting over the East River, this year’s Independence Day celebrations will again demonstrate our collective pride in our nation, its traditions and its history.
Too bad ever fewer Americans know much about that history, since our public education establishment doesn’t put much priority on teaching it, or on instructing young minds in the basics of civics.
Teaching citizenship has always been a core purpose of public schools, yet government requirements are now focusing achievement goals on math and reading. The importance of civics and US history in the classroom is in fast decline.
New York and 40-plus other states have signed onto the Common Core State Standards, whose content standards focus exclusively on English and math. That means teachers and policymakers will need to take steps to ensure that the teaching of US history and civics doesn’t continue to slide.
A general disregard for our national heritage is trickling down through the system. Measurements by the federal Education Department and private groups have consistently found American students’ basic knowledge of US history to be sorely lacking and getting worse over time.
An important place to start, as many public school classrooms do, is with the Pledge of Allegiance. Happily, the Pledge prevailed in its latest legal battles in courts when the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts ruled in favor of its use as a patriotic oath.
But while most students recite the Pledge daily, their understanding of their own history and civic engagement fails.
The civic mission of schools is crucial to American public education, yet our public schools fail to prioritize history and civics — which are often drowned out within the ever-broadening subject of “social studies.”
Until the middle of the 20th century, most American high schools offered three courses in civics and government, focusing on current events, civic engagement and democracy as a whole — topics that are now lumped together, and subjects for which schools are rarely held accountable for teaching well.
Civics even used to be required in elementary-school curricula, but no longer in most states.
Last administered in 2010, the last national civics assessment showed that less than half of 8th graders understood the purpose of the Bill of Rights and only 10 percent displayed age-appropriate knowledge of our government’s system of checks and balances. Overall, two-thirds of students scored less than proficient.
And last year the US Education Department (claiming budget pressures) cancelled the American history and civics tests within the National Assessment of Educational Progress. This “gold standard” test had been our single best tool to measure how well our schools teach history and civics. Now, rather than working to repair this crucial failing of our schools, we’ve stopped tracking it.
Citizens may be surprised to find how nebulous the teaching of foundational subjects — the Constitution, US history, civic awareness — is in classrooms today. Folded into “social studies,” a single teacher often must cover that ground as well as world history, economics and geography, rarely focusing for long on anything. And educators often lack more than the very minimum of formal training in the history they’re responsible for teaching.
History teachers in New York take a Content Specialty Test in social studies; only 35 percent of the test focuses on history. The rest blends geography, economics, civics, citizenship and various “government social studies skills.”
Few teachers responsible for teaching history have had much formal study of history themselves. How can students’ learning of history not suffer?
As young people leave school and enter the workforce, their lack of civic awareness often translates into a lack of active social involvement — including in the voting booth.
If we don’t make greater efforts to teach civics and US history, a daily recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance won’t do much good — because our citizens won’t understand the principles they’re pledging allegiance to.
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