As you celebrate Constitution Day on Sept. 17, ask your public school administrators about their civics education programs — the programs that are in place year round.
Civics is boring, you say? Not if retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor has her way. She has called on educators to “change how civics learning is taught from the dry facts of history and the structure of government to an emphasis on how citizens can and must participate in civic life.” The best civics education involves students in doing civics.
The goal of civics education is informed citizens, knowledgeable about the values and principles of American constitutional democracy. These future citizens should be committed to making American democracy work and having the skills to do so.
Civics education encompasses history, geography, government, economics, world cultures and social systems. Students will most benefit from civics classes involving role plays, classroom debate and discussion and community projects.
Justice O’Connor has noted the sad state of civics knowledge. For example, in 2004, the last year Illinois tested social sciences on standardized tests, 40 percent of 11th graders, 41 percent of seventh graders and 39 percent of all fourth graders performed below standard. In a recent National Assessment of Civic Progress, less than 33 percent of eighth graders could identify the purpose of the Declaration of Independence.
Despite that evidence, we have several examples of action civics education in Southern Illinois. Shawnee High School students studied flooding issues related to the levee systems near their homes, evaluated potential solutions, hosted a town meeting to educate state and federal legislators, advocated for solutions and even raised money to assist the local districts in generating the local match for government grants to improve the levees.
Youngsters at Creal Springs School committed a Disney Planet Challenge Grant to rebuilding a boardwalk at the Cache River, thus making it accessible. The youngsters learned about the need while conducting nature studies at the Cache River.
Each year, student volunteers from Carbondale Middle School develop projects for a statewide history fair. They not only make history come alive but explore public policy issues as well. Children at a number of area schools, using Project Citizen materials, have made other changes in their communities. These examples inspire all of us to create action civics programs.
Educators must emphasize reading, math and science, the subjects tested for No Child Left Behind, and the STEM areas (science, technology, engineering, and math). While these are very important, educators cannot forget civics education. If you believe, as I do, that it is important to our democracy that our schools offer high quality action-oriented civics education, please do one or more of the following:
Tell your school board members, administrators and teachers that you support the implementation of high quality civics programs and encourage school board members and administrators to read these same materials.
Support the school’s civics programs. Perhaps your business or other entity could fund T-shirts for the debate club or transportation for a field trip.
Introduce your children to Justice O’Connor’s civics website www.icivics.org.
Tune into the civics page of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute. Encourage teachers to do so. Encourage educators to attend the Civic Education Conference on Oct. 11 at SIU. For more, visit www.paulsimoninstitute.org.
Support teachers who make exceptional efforts to involve students in action civics.
SUZANNE SCHMITZ is an attorney and professor emeritus from Southern Illinois University School of Law and a Carbondale resident.