I have mixed feelings about a story I read in today’s Tampa Bay Tribune. The state of Florida wants kids to be able to pass an end-of-course civics test before they can be promoted to high school. On one hand I sympathize with the desire of Florida lawmakers to do something about the appalling ignorance of middles school students. The article pointed out a telling statistic:
A third of Americans can’t name any of the three branches of government. Fewer than half understand what separation of powers is, and twice as many can name a judge on American Idol than the chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.
Steve Gunn at EAGnews.org made an even stronger case – it is necessary for the health of our democracy:
Democracy requires the participation of a knowledgeable public. A population that doesn’t understand how our system works, or why it’s designed a certain way, is far more likely to let our unique form of self-government slip away.
And our current population is frighteningly ignorant. Here are a few more findings from the Annenberg Center survey:
More than half of respondents thought the U.S. Constitution was signed in 1776, which, of course, if false. Only 13 percent realized the Constitution was signed in 1787, following a short period of weak national government under the Articles of Confederation.
On the other hand the high-stakes culture in Florida is proving to be a miserable failure. Also, who will determine what is on the test? Will it focus on basic facts about the Constitution and our Founding or will we see indoctrination and a focus on other facets of American history? A big part of the problem is that a lot of the focus in many social science courses have been on all sorts of other types of history and less and less emphasis has been placed on our founding.
Also from a local control and parental sovereignty point of view I am troubled anytime a state comes in to force districts to make chances like these and dictate to parents when a child should be held back.
That said, Civics must absolutely be taught – the basics of our founding – both at school and at home. It has been sorely lacking in many schools (and homes), but a high-stakes test isn’t the answer especially at the expense of local control and parental sovereignty.