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Memorization won't make students good citizens

Bill Smith, Community Voices • Jul 28, 2019 at 8:00 AM

As reported in the Press on July 2, a new Tennessee law requires that high school seniors pass a civics test in order to receive a full diploma. Test questions will come from the citizenship test administered by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

When I read about this new law, I immediately thought about the 2002 enactment of No Child Left Behind and its devastating impact on the teaching of history and government, especially in the early grades. Because the law’s stringent accountability requirements only applied to math, literacy, and science, elementary and middle school administrators across the country directed teachers to commit more time to those subjects by substantially reducing — or even eliminating — social studies instruction.

No Child Left Behind has been replaced, but its effects on the teaching of civics have never been fully addressed. Apparently, Tennessee lawmakers think their new civics legislation is the answer. Rep. Micah Van Huss claimed it is “one way of teaching Tennessee kids the importance of our God-given liberties and about our country’s founding.” Rep. Matthew Hill said, “I know civics instruction will solidify the academic foundations for our current and future leaders.”

They’re both dead wrong.

When you read the 100 questions on the U.S. citizenship test, you notice immediately that they require only rote memory and a rudimentary knowledge of America’s history and government. I realize Hill has a low opinion of Tennessee’s public schools — or he wouldn’t be trying so hard to privatize them — but passing this civics test will not indicate Tennessee high school graduates possess the “academic foundations” for leadership. Nor will it ensure that they understand very much about America’s founding and the freedoms enshrined in the Constitution, as Van Huss claimed.

The only good thing about this law is that it could have been worse. I imagine most of the affected educators will see it as one more annoying imposition by clueless lawmakers. At least it isn’t the kind of onerous accountability legislation that forces teachers to spend every instructional moment “teaching to the test,” especially when such tests primarily require students to regurgitate facts.

High school graduates should know the basic facts assessed by America’s citizenship test. However, as I think most of us would agree, our young people need to know and understand so much more in order to be prepared for active and intelligent engagement in civic life. Further, Van Huss and Hill may not realize it, but our schools already go far beyond the meager expectations of this test. I taught fifth-graders who could have passed it.

Civics education has never been more important than it is today. I believe our high school graduates should possess (1) the skills that enable them to distinguish facts from propaganda and lies, (2) an understanding of how government and politics actually work, (3) the ability to apply a thoughtful, evidence-based approach to problem solving, and (4) the willingness to interact respectfully with people with different opinions and perspectives than their own.

They can’t achieve these aims by memorizing facts such as the number of U.S. senators and the names of states on the West Coast. However, they can if they have classroom opportunities to examine and debate the difficult challenges facing our society and the democratic processes for addressing them.

But that’s where things get tricky, isn’t it? A July 14 Press editorial about Tennessee’s civics law urged schools to “avoid politicizing what students learn.” From my experience, educators are very careful to avoid expressing partisan views to students. The problem is, young people will inevitably draw their own conclusions when you present them with accurate information. In today’s divisive political climate, what happens when they form opinions that parents and opportunistic politicians like Hill and Van Huss don’t like?

Imagine, for example, if a government teacher challenges students to consider climate change and what, if anything, we should do about it. Has that teacher taken a partisan position because students examine the available evidence and decide we should take bold steps to save the planet? Are politicians and other citizens who reject climate science going to accuse the school of blatant partisanship?

And what about the teacher who emphasizes the historical role of the press in protecting our democracy and requires students to read a variety of media sources to evaluate elected officials’ behaviors and policies? Is that teacher taking a partisan stance in opposition to President Trump’s view of journalists as enemies of the people?

If we really want young people to become well-informed and actively engaged citizens, we’re going to have to give them and their teachers the freedom to dig deeply into America’s history, government, politics, and society — the good and the bad — without fear of intrusion from adults with their own partisan agendas.

And, yes, there is risk involved in this approach. School systems will have to develop and faithfully adhere to policies requiring that teachers remain nonpartisan in their instructional approaches. The safe alternative is to try to distill civics down to a set of facts that can be assessed on a standardized test. Unfortunately, that won’t prepare our children to be the kind of citizens our democracy needs right now.

Dr. Bill Smith of Johnson City is a retired educator and public school advocate.

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