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Failing civic education

For our Sunday Perspective cover story, I took a look at the sorry state of civic literacy in our nation. Chris McGrew, a former social studies coordinator for the Indiana Department of Education, confirms that social studies and civics are being squeezed out by standardized testing. His assertion is based on research he did with Professor Phillip VanFossen at Purdue University.

McGrew now heads up international programs at Indiana State University, where he's seeing firsthand the folly of our current obsession with testing. Just returned from a trip to China, he said educators there are trying to emulate U.S. approaches to education which foster creativity and critical thinking rather than rote test-taking skills.

They better hurry. With increasing pressure from corporations getting rich by selling textbooks, standardized tests and online instruction programs, U.S. schools are rapidly adopting the same model Asian nations are trying to improve on. An LA Times editorial offers a nice look at that very topic:

Under the existing system, a single entrance exam determines whether students attend college, and which one. Talk about teaching to the test: The last year of high school is often given over to cramming for the exam. In at least one classroom, students were placed on intravenous drips of amino acids in preparation for the test, in the belief that it would help their memories and provide an energy boost; in another sad case, a girl was not told about her father's death for two months to avoid disrupting her studies.

The recent backlash against the tests includes complaints that students are being fed facts by rote rather than being taught to think critically and create. Two years ago, Premier Wen Jiabao lamented the failure of Chinese schools to turn out innovative thinkers with strong analytical skills. "We must encourage students to think independently, freely express themselves, get them to believe in themselves, protect and stimulate their imagination and creativity," he said. He even quoted Albert Einstein's famous line about imagination being more important than knowledge.

Karen Francisco, editorial page editor for The Journal Gazette, has been an Indiana journalist since 1981. She writes frequently about education for The Journal Gazette opinion pages and here, where she looks at the business, politics and science of learning as it relates to northeast Indiana, the state and the nation. She can be reached at 260-461-8206 or by e-mail at kfrancisco@jg.net.

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