Our Turn: Crisis in civics education greatly exaggerated

For the Monitor
Monday, July 17, 2017

The recent enactment of a state law making civics and history instruction a prerequisite for high school graduation draws attention to a critical need in the education of New Hampshire’s youth. It also provides an opportunity to take stock of how our students stack up among their peers nationally, and of the steady progress a corps of dedicated teachers – in concert with the N.H. Institute for Civics Education – has made in developing relevant curriculum for our school children over the past several years.

Such an accounting serves two purposes.

First, it counters the often-voiced “Chicken Little” narrative that suggests our schools are on an alarming downward course in teaching the rudiments of history and civics. Second, and more importantly, it shines a spotlight on the many teacher-inspired initiatives that are channeling our children’s abundant talents and passions into a love of social studies and civic engagement.

On the first point, 2014 data shows an overall nationwide rise since 1998 in the performance of eighth-graders on the civic and history literacy tests administered by the congressionally mandated National Assessment of Education Progress. Many more children scored at or above the “proficient” category in history. Additionally, statistics indicate a narrowing of “achievement gaps” between demographic groups.

And New Hampshire students, together with those in other New England states, fall within a demographic that has been shown to perform significantly better than the national population on both civics and history tests. This is not to suggest our work is done.

It is important for educators, lawmakers and parents alike to acknowledge and address the declining focus on social studies and civics in public elementary schools. The emphasis on math and reading, coupled with high stakes assessments that influence which subjects garner the most attention, have chipped away at the instructional time allotted to teachers for social studies and the arts.

Advocates for greater balance should leverage the social studies literacy standards within the Common Core State Standards to ensure more time is spent in these areas, including nonfiction “informational text” literacy and writing.

NHICE also suggests that New Hampshire schools create for each kindergartner a “digital portfolio” to document the progression of civics learning from the earliest grades through high school.

Known as “spiraling” in education circles, such a building block program would help ensure student success on the pre-graduation history and government competency test required by state law.

To the second point, all concerned with this issue should take heart from the numerous teachers who are committed to educating students K-12 in citizenship and government.

Take, for example, New Hampshire fourth- and fifth-grade teachers Emilia Whippie Prior and J.J Prior, who in 2016 co-authored The Patriot Papers to help 8- to 14-year-olds understand the Declaration of Independence, the United States Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Or Andover Principal Jane Slayton and the K-2 teachers Gretchen Hildebrand, Jennifer Bent and Michael Wiley, who developed a series of K-8 lesson plans that encourage students to never underestimate the influence one person can have, be it in standing up to bullying, curing disease or defending an Afghani girl’s right to an education.

Or the 180 teachers who have chosen to spend a weekend or summer day in an NHICE workshop designing lesson plans or deepening their own civic knowledge for the benefit of their students.

Just last month, a daylong NHICE seminar titled “Sowing Seeds of Democracy: Integrating Civics in Elementary School and Beyond” drew 40 educators to the Monadnock Center for History and Culture in Peterborough.

And early next month, Honorable Marjorie O. Rendell from the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, along with two scholars from the National Constitution Center, will be at the federal district court in Concord to present to 75 teachers a workshop, “Equal Justice Under the Law: The 14th Amendment in the Classroom.”

Against that backdrop, New Hampshire schoolchildren will be better served if civic leaders eschew adopting a “narrative of crisis” and instead build on the commendable work that was galvanized by retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice David Souter in 2009 with the creation of the N.H. Task Force on Civics Education.

(Susan Leahy is board chairwoman of the N.H. Institute for Civics Education. Dianna Terrell is an associate professor of education at St. Anselm College and serves as an institute trustee.)