WASHINGTON – In the midst of the presidential primaries, the voters of tomorrow are not being prepared to become informed voters and active citizens, say national advocates of civics education.
Maryland officials said that is not the case with students in this state – – but they acknowledge that more can be done.
In a 1999 poll by the National Association of Secretaries of State, 55 percent of youths said they “agree that the schools do not do a very good job giving young people the information to vote.”
Only about 25 percent of students scored at or above the proficient level in the 1998 National Assessment of Civics, which is conducted by the U.S. Department of Education.
“There is no question that there isn’t … adequate training in civics,” said Tam Taylor, a spokeswoman for the Center for Civic Education. “And that’s worrisome because civics classes are where we really generate the next generation of voters and participants in the political process.”
But Maryland education officials said state schools are definitely teaching students what it takes, not only to participate in the government but also to understand it.
“We stress not only that kids understand the basic democratic principles but also that they understand what it means to be responsible and effective citizens,” said Marcie Taylor-Thoma, the social studies specialist for the state Department of Education.
The state has required for the past 14 years that high school students pass a citizenry test in order to graduate and it is redesigning the test this year, Taylor-Thoma said. In addition, she said, the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program includes civic-related questions.
The executive director of the Center for Civic Education said he could not say whether Maryland was doing a better or worse job in civics education than other states. But Charles Quigley did say that Maryland, much like other states, hides its civic education in social studies and history courses.
Quigley said that means that civics is not recognizable in the curriculum and “history classes often focus on social history more than political history.”
“The thing that is frustrating is that when kids do have good civic education programs they demonstrate far greater knowledge, greater tolerance for diversity and they participate,” said Quigley, whose center has developed and distributed civics curriculum and textbooks.
But many Maryland teachers are trying to make civics a more obvious part of the classroom by utilizing the center’s curriculum, said Taylor-Thoma. She said she has already distributed the center’s “We the People” curriculum to many elementary schools and more are interested in receiving it.
That curriculum teaches students about the Constitution and Bill of Rights and requires that they participate in a mock congressional hearing. The center said “We the People” does not replace traditional social studies curriculum, but is a supplement.
Diane Roberts, an eighth-grade history teacher at Kingsview Middle School in Montgomery County, said she has “absolutely” seen an increase in civic knowledge since began including the curriculum in her classes last year.
“At the high school level, civics has always been there and it is now filtering down to [other grades],” said Roberts, who is also the head of the social studies department at her middle school.
Informal interviews with high school students show that they appear to have at least some political understanding. A group of students interviewed at Suitland High School last week could name at least two candidates running in the upcoming presidential primary election and all said they would vote once they turned 18.
But as always, civics lessons have to battle the teen students’ attention spans.
“They teach you [civics] but you have to pay attention,” said Darnell Gibson, 16, a Suitland sophomore.