The Importance of Civics Education

By Lawrence Hardy

If you’re a school board member -- or, for that matter, any public official who has to make tough choices in an age of shrinking budgets and expanding needs -- you’ve probably had to make a speech to your constituents that goes something like this:

“It’s a great idea you’ve come up with -- really, it is. But we just don’t have the money.”

Chances are you’ve had to make that statement at some point during your term in office. But unless you happened to be a board member for Tennessee’s Johnson County Public Schools, you probably never had to make it to a group of 10- and 11-year-olds -- fifth-graders working on a civics project who were only trying to make their school a little safer by adding another access road.

Fifth-graders who were right, by the way.

Teacher Daphne Greene knew what she was getting into when her class chose the road issue for its activity for Project Citizen, a program of the California-based Center for Civic Education. It would involve the school board and the county commission, the state highway department and -- well, it was complex enough to make a teacher wish she’d gone into building beautification instead.

“Oh, please, do something else,” Greene remembers thinking. “We don’t want to go there.”

This story ends happily -- on many levels. Doe Elementary didn’t get the new road, at least not yet, but it’s still on the table. And the district and county did make big improvements to its traffic situation. Equally important, Greene’s fifth-graders learned what it was like to work hard for something. They learned how the system works—not by reading or hearing about it, but through a hands-on activity that involved the whole class.

Johnson County is not alone in this effort to make civics come alive. In Lynn, Mass., for example, another Project Citizen effort has students working on a city council liaison committee, helping to bring together a diverse, urban community and make the students’ voices heard. But across much of the country, civics education isn’t a priority. Some say it’s been squeezed out by core subjects like math and language arts—the ones most tested.

With the vast majority of states signing on to Common Core standards in essential subjects -- in order to better prepare graduates for college and the workforce -- proponents of civic learning are saying a third pillar of a strong educational foundation needs to be added.

“We maintain that this new education reform mantra -- preparing students for college and career -- is incomplete,” says Ted McConnell, executive director for the Civic Mission of Schools. “It’s about preparing students for college, career -- and citizenship.”

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