Thursday, August 09, 2007

Preparing a New Generation for Self-Government

By Annette Boyd Pitts

Most Americans do not understand our most basic constitutional principles and are disengaging from civic and political life. Voter turnout, especially among young voters, continues to reflect an indifference to the importance of participation in American democracy.

In December 2005, the Florida Bar conducted a poll of Floridians to determine public knowledge of basic democratic principles. The results reinforced a national poll conducted by the American Bar Association. Fewer than 60 percent of adults could identify the three branches of government, even in a multiple choice test; and less than half understood the concepts of separation of powers and checks and balances.

Even more recently, a national survey conducted by the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania found one-third of adult Americans were not able to identify even one of the three branches of government.

Possibly even more troublesome is the latest report from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) in its Civics Report Card. NAEP is the only congressionally mandated sampling of student achievement in the nation. The 2006 test results which were released this May revealed serious deficiencies among our nation’s students. The 2006 NAEP measured the civic knowledge and skills of 4th, 8th and 12th grade students nationally. The assessment is organized in three main components including civic knowledge, intellectual skills, and civic dispositions. The assessment found:
  • Only 28 percent of 8th graders could explain the historic purpose of the Declaration of Independence.

  • Only 14 percent of 4th graders knew that defendants have the right to a lawyer.

  • Only 22 percent of 8th graders scored at or above the “proficient” level.

  • Only 27 percent of 12th graders scored at or above the “proficient” level.
While there is much to be done to improve student knowledge and skills in civics and government, Florida is making some progress.

As part of a nationwide campaign to advance civics and government in our public schools the Florida Law Related Education Association, Inc. (FLREA) is working with the Center for Civic Education and the Campaign to Promote Civic Education to spearhead efforts in Florida. Together with the League of Women Voters, the Florida Bar, and Common Cause, FLREA surveyed school districts in Florida and found that less than 10 percent requited the teaching of civics and government as a stand alone course in middle school. Middle school became the primary focus of efforts in the Florida legislative campaign last year. In 2006, the Florida legislature passed a requirement for students to take a semester of civics prior to exiting 8th grade.

Standards and testing are two major priorities during 2007 will be for 2008. New standards are being developed for all social studies courses in Florida. The Florida Department of Education has assembled a group of framers and writers to develop standards and benchmarks for all grade levels. Civics and government is one of the subject areas addressed in the standards. A wide range of groups and individuals such as former Senator Bob Graham and former Congressman Lou Frey are spearheading efforts to include civics and government as an FCAT assessment area.

Florida also has a number of programs to assist school districts in meeting the new mandate and strengthen district level civics and government initiatives. FLREA administers the “We the People…the Citizen and the Constitution” curriculum and mock congressional hearing program in each of the state’s 25 school districts. The organization also administers Project Citizen, a companion program for middle school students to actively engage in solving community problems through public policy. Other initiatives in the state include academic competitions, democracy camps, professional development institutes for teachers and partnerships between the judicial and education communities to help to strengthen school-based civic education efforts.

These new public policy initiatives are paving the way for Florida to be in the forefront of the nationwide campaign to advance civics and government in our state’s public schools and to raise this valuable instructional area to its rightful status.
Boyd Pitts is the founding executive director of the Florida Law Related Education Association, Inc. She is the recipient of the National Improvements in Justice Award and has worked in over 20 different countries to advance education for democracy.

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