THE BLOG

Citizenship Deficit Disorder: A Failure of Education, Expertise and Experience

02/03/2015 02:30 pm ET | Updated Apr 05, 2015

The United States of America is suffering from a serious and potentially fatal case of Citizenship Deficit Disorder. This disorder is due to the failure of our educational system and the cumulative lack of experience and expertise of the American citizenry.

Some might think that this is an overstatement. Unfortunately, there is an abundance of data to support that assessment. Here, as evidence, are just a few selected facts.

  • A Failure of Education: The National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) has been conducting a national assessment of students' performance on civics in the 4th, 8th and 12th grade levels since 1998. The results in 2010 showed that only around 25% of those students were "proficient" in civics - this was similar to prior years. The 2010 studies showed that less than 50% of eighth graders knew the purpose of the Bill of Rights. And, only 1 in 10 of those students demonstrated knowledge of the checks and balances among the legislative, executive and judicial branches. (The NAEP's results for 2014 will be released in the Spring of this year.)

  • A Failure of Expertise: One might conclude this is just a knowledge problem for kids these days. That would definitely be incorrect. Ignorance of civics and things governmental is pandemic among adults as well. For example, a national research poll of the American public in 2006 showed that only 24% of them could name at least two of the nine Supreme Court justices as compared to 77% who could name at least two of the seven dwarfs. A national poll in the summer of 2013 revealed that a mere 35% could accurately name the parties controlling each of the chambers of Congress at that time
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  • A Failure of Experience: This lack education and expertise is damning for American democracy - even more-so is the lack of participation in electoral politics. The turnout of eligible voters for the 2014 midterm election was a stunningly low 35.9%. This compares to a turnout in normal mid-terms of around 40% or so as opposed to turnouts in the 50-60% range over the past three decades in presidential years. Whether in the mid-term or presidential years, this lack of turnout is shameful. According to a study by the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, from 1945 to 2001, out of 169 democracies, the United States ranked 120th in terms of voter participation.

There is a nascent attempt in some states to remediate these failures beginning with reforming the educational process. For example,

  • As reported by the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) at Tufts University, three states - Florida, Hawaii and Tennessee- currently have "cutting edge" civics initiatives including things such as standardized testing in middle school or action or project-based learning.
  • On January 15, Arizona became the first state in the union to require high school students to pass a civics test in order to graduate. This bill was pushed by Frank Riggs, head of the Joe Foss Institute in Scottsdale which is advocating for all 50 states to adapt similar legislation.
  • The State of Illinois will be considering recommendations from the Illinois Task Force on Civic Education which include requiring civics education in high school and a service learning project in middle and in high school. The Task Force is chaired by Shawn Healy of the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, a Chicago-headquartered organization that provides funding for civic education in Illinois schools.

In spite of these fledgling efforts, various CIRCLE studies conclude that we are more in retrograde than in blast off mode when it comes to civics. Along with the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools and other prestigious groups, CIRCLE states that a good civics curriculum should cover: civic knowledge, civic skills, civic participation and civic disposition.

There are a handful of curricula of this comprehensive nature out there. But, they are few and far between and, to the best of our knowledge, none exists across - or even within a major school district in any state.

To make civic matters worse, the U.S. Senate's recently released draft of the Reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) included nothing in the bill for civics, history or social studies.

The question is why is this? The bigger and overriding question is what is or should be the purpose of education in the United States of America.

Why is there no focus on civics in the pending ESEA reauthorization draft or in any ongoing priority national educational initiative currently under-way? There is no single or simple answer.

But, two of the driving forces have to be the precedence being given to STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education and the emphasis on testing - first with No Child Left Behind and now with the Common Core standards - which does not include a civics component.

These items and other educational areas have moved to the forefront of the national agenda as the United States has embarked on a race to the top. In contrast, the contest in the civic education and engagement arena has been a race to the bottom. This situation must be corrected. Here's why.

In April 1930, Eleanor Roosevelt wrote a seminal piece for Pictorial Review titled "Good Citizenship: The Purpose of Education". In her article, Mrs. Roosevelt asserted, "In our schools are now given courses in civics, government, economics, current events. Very few children are as ignorant as I once was. But there still remains a vast amount to be done before we accomplish our first objective - informed and intelligent citizens, and secondly, bring about the realization that we are responsible for the trend of thought and action of our times."

More recently, former Supreme Court justice Sandra Day O'Connor stated, "It is imperative if we are going to survive as a nation that our schools teach civics. Knowledge and understanding about our system of government is not something that's handed down in the gene pool. You have to learn it."

Mrs. Roosevelt and Justice O'Connor make the arguments. Their positions are abetted by the landmark study done by the National Commission on Excellence in Education in 1983 which declared that the United States was a nation at risk and at a tipping point in terms of civic literacy.

In 2013, the American Academy's Commission on Humanities and Social Sciences issued a report titled, The Heart of the Matter, which stressed the need to expand the educational envelope beyond STEM. In its report the Commission set out three overarching goals including "the need to educate Americans in the knowledge, skills and understanding they will need to thrive in a twenty-first century democracy." It emphasized that "These goals cannot be achieved by science alone."

At the conclusion of the constitutional convention in 1787, a person asked Benjamin Franklin, "Well, Doctor - what have we got a Republic or a Monarchy?" "A Republic", replied Franklin, "if you can keep it."

We have kept it. And, can keep it.

To do so, however, we must eliminate the causes of Citizenship Deficit Disorder: a failure of education, expertise and experience.

The conditions and symptoms of this disorder have been with us for some time. But, they are now approaching plague stage. They hold the seeds for the unraveling of this great nation.

They can be ignored no longer. The fate of this Republic and its citizens are in the balance.