Watching high school students stream out of their classrooms, onto the streets and into the halls of government in recent weeks to seek policy remedies for gun violence has been heartening to many of their elders. Some see youthful civic vigor as a sign that the next generation of Minnesotans is eager to participate in representative democracy.
We hope that’s so. But marching outside the State Capitol is not the same as understanding what goes on inside, let alone how citizens can best affect those proceedings. For the latter, civics education is required.
The adequacy and effectiveness of civics education in Minnesota’s public schools is being called into question at the Legislature this session. Rep. Dean Urdahl, R-Grove City, a retired social studies and American history teacher, is sponsoring two measures aimed at amping up civics learning. One would require 11th- or 12th-graders to take a one-credit civics class as part of the existing 3.5-credit social studies requirement. The other would have the state collect and report the results of a civics test that the 2016 Legislature made a requirement for all high school students — though graduation does not depend on passing the exam.
While we find merit in both bills, we’re particularly keen to see the test results measure enacted this year. What was the point of requiring students to take a civics test — a scaled-down version of the naturalization test required for citizenship — if not to give educators and policymakers data with which to judge the adequacy of Minnesota’s civics education requirements?
Plenty of data nationally and anecdotal accounts locally indicate that civics education has been getting short shrift since the 2001 No Child Left Behind bill required testing in reading, writing, math and science but not social studies. A 2016 national study found that only a quarter of Americans can name all three branches of government, a smaller share than in previous measurements. In quadrennial tests since 1998, the National Assessment of Educational Progress consistently found fewer than one in four eighth-graders proficient in civics.
Lawmakers and educators should be eager to know how Minnesotans score on similar measures. But both of Urdahl’s bills have run into resistance from some educators and from the Minnesota Department of Education. Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius calls the test results reporting requirement “burdensome” and the civics class requirement “unnecessary,” given that civics is among the required topics in the state’s social studies academic standards. The topic is embedded throughout the social studies curriculum and need not be addressed with a separate required course, explained Deputy Commissioner Charlene Briner.
If that is occurring to good effect, test results would confirm that it’s so. Legislators should provide the funding necessary to collect and aggregate those results and determine whether they are in keeping with what for 225 years has been a fundamental purpose of public education. It is no exaggeration to say that public schools exist because the nation’s founders sought to prepare Americans to do their part in governing this country. Education policymakers have a duty to monitor how well that mission is being met and to make changes if citizenship preparation is falling short.
It’s notable that those impressive school shooting survivors from Florida’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School — some of whom marched at Minnesota’s Capitol on March 24 — were raised in a state that imposed nation-leading civics education requirements for middle-school students in 2010. Well before the Parkland tragedy, a national report concluded: “If every state enacted a policy like Florida’s, … America’s young people would be on course for more active and informed civic engagement throughout their adulthood.” The fruits of that policy ought not be confined to one state.