Don’t Know Much About Government? (We might start out that way)

In this week’s online management newsletter from Governing Magazine, Katherine Barrett and Richard Greene would like to know if readers can share information on any “excellent civics education efforts” around the country. They correctly link current lack of awareness of what government does (“…who is responsible for picking up the trash….what does a city manager do…does state government have anything to do with education?…”) with civics education in our schools.  Some early research is revealing that the situation is quite bad indeed.

In the wake of No Child Left Behind many states scrapped their civics curricula to dedicate resources to reading and math. (What gets measured, gets done.) In late 2007, Mitsakos & Ackerman (2009) found that only 27 states retained civics in their public school curricula. More disturbing are findings that there is variation in the type of civics education being provided, depending upon the community. In 2005, Julie Jenkins presented at the Western Political Science Association annual conference on her research that showed that in wealthy communities, public schools taught very active forms of citizenship. In contrast, students living in poor communities were given instruction that socialized them to be passive rather than active citizens, suggesting that even if public schools in your area offer civics (and they may not), the message given may not be to participate, be active, or that young people can have a voice in governing. Gravois’ 2006 study showed that four years of college fails to improve civics knowledge in any measurable way, either.

Why does this matter? Would you pay for something if you had no idea what you were getting in return? I wouldn’t. And no wonder so many of our fellow citizens balk against taxes (even in good times), vilify a government they don’t understand, and join movements like the Tea Party.  It appears that this lack of understanding begins early.

Get in touch with Katherine or Richard if you have a good civics education model underway where you live.  No Child Left Behind should absolutely include civics, for without a broad understanding of the nature of democracy and government, we are all left behind.

Anita Larson, Research Fellow and Doctoral Student, St. Paul, Minnesota

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