In 1996, I was a fifth grade teacher. I was invited to attend a rigorous summer institute for educators on the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights.
This weeklong workshop used materials created by the Center for Civic Education and was funded through a grant from the U.S. Department of Education. It sounded interesting to me, but a bit daunting and maybe a little stuffy. Thinking to myself, “I can leave if I don't like it; they can't make me stay,” I packed my bags and left for Bloomington to participate in my first We the People Summer Institute.
It was daunting. It was not stuffy. I did not leave. In fact, I can say that week in Bloomington changed me as a teacher, changed me as a person and, as good civic education can, changed me as a citizen of the United States. In this era of pushing schools for STEM education, I wonder, couldn't we change our focus and include civic education in that acronym, too? To quote my former colleague, Stan Harris of Evansville, “Few of us will be scientists or mathematicians, but we're all going to be citizens.”
Many people ask the difference between civic education and government classes. In simple terms, a government class teaches things such as the three branches of government, how a bill becomes law and the Electoral College. Civic education includes the skills and attitudes necessary to be an informed and engaged citizen; it is not synonymous with history. Civic education includes practice in collaboration, cooperation and consensus-building, as well as an understanding of the responsibilities that go along with rights. It includes discussion regarding the philosophical underpinningsthat went along with the Founders' decisions as they created our representative democracy, and the relevancy of those concepts today. Exemplary programs include experiential learning and local problem-solving, giving students the capacity to apply learned skills.
Most Hoosiers know there are social studies standards in all grades, and there is a high school government class required in Indiana, but few understand what that means in the classroom. Indiana high school students are required to pass only one semester of government for graduation. Beginning this year, students must take the test new citizens take during the naturalization process, but they are not required to pass that test.
Elementary grades have social studies standards, and social studies is sometimes part of the standardized tests. Those scores are not considered for school evaluation or funding from the state. Elementary teachers face scheduling challenges with social studies because of time constraints of reading, math and special classes, which often relegates social studies to 15 minutes between gym and lunch, or the last 10 minutes of the day.
Teachers are faced with the dual problems of Indiana not requiring actual civic education and a shortfall of learning opportunities created by test requirements and time constraints. Perhaps this partially explains why Hoosiers have not scored well on the Civic Health Index and why Indiana voter turnout is below the national average. But just voting is not the answer. We need all voters to be reasoned and informed.
There is hope for the future. Classroom civic education programs such as We the People, Mock Trial and iCivics can be used by teachers to enhance their curriculum. Adult Hoosiers who want to know more can participate in programs such as the Allen County Bar Foundation's Constitution 101.
U.S. Sens. Chris Coons, D-Del., and John Cornyn, R-Texas, recently introduced the USA Civics Act, which would authorize grants to groups that promote knowledge of American political thought and history, democracy, or means of participation in political and civic life, giving access to funds to create civic education professional development.
For our democracy to thrive, we citizens must be engaged in the community, understand how local, state, and national policies and rhetoric affect our lives, and be informed voters. We must work toward the day when no elected official ever misrepresents American history (even if the teleprompter is covered with raindrops), where elected representatives speak truth to power, and where the average citizen can differentiate between legitimate information and propaganda, real news and fake news, truth and lies.
Rebecca Reeder, a retired educator, is coordinator for the We the People National Finals.