A primary reason for creating America’s public education system was to cultivate an informed citizenry. A population that understands how government works and how citizens can be involved is crucial to democracy.
Yet most surveys show that the nation’s students have minimal knowledge about basic civics and their own local governments. And that’s why efforts to strengthen civics education in Minnesota deserve support. Especially in today’s politically polarized climate, the nation needs more young people and adults who understand and can engage in the democratic process.
A bill with bipartisan support could help bring that about. Rep. Dean Urdahl, R-Acton Township, is sponsoring a measure that would require districts to report results of a civics exam that is supposed to be given to students.
Currently, Minnesota law requires students to complete 3.5 social studies credits to graduate. Within that requirement, schools can include civics courses or instruction. And students must take a test that includes at least 50 of the questions used on U.S. citizenship tests. Passing that test means answering at least 30 questions correctly.
Some districts have civics courses and give the test; others do not. A former social studies teacher, Urdahl points out that some districts don’t offer civics at all.
“The current test is required, but there is no accountability at all,’’ Urdahl said. “We don’t know if it is even being given in all schools. ... It’s not a high stakes test; we are only asking for a school district’s aggregate information — how many took the test, how many passed it. We’re just asking that schools do what they are already supposed to be doing.’’
He said the exam is not the end-all and be-all. Rather, it is a “step in the process’’ that can lead to other things such as experiential learning (by doing) and incorporating civics into other disciplines. But the fundamentals of civics should be taught and measured first, he said.
Last week, the Minnesota Senate’s education policy committee held an informal hearing on the topic during which more than a dozen individuals testified in favor of improving civics education. Similar bills have been supported by lawmakers in the past, including Sen. Carla Nelson, R-Rochester, only to be either diluted or vetoed at the end of session.
Among those who have previously objected are some education groups including the Minnesota School Boards Association. Their concern is that districts need the flexibility to determine curricula without the Legislature imposing more mandated courses and collection of testing data.
As the Star Tribune Editorial Board has previously argued, national data and anecdotal accounts locally indicate that civics education declined since the early 2000s, when federal legislation called for more testing in core subjects, but not social studies. Since then, a 2016 national study found that only a quarter of Americans (students and adults) 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 has found that only about 25% of Minnesota students have adequate knowledge about civics.
That dismal data helps make the case for elevating civics education to the same level as other required, measured subjects such as reading, math, history and science.