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Massachusetts Kids Fight for 'Civic Ed'

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Here is news that may shake your stereotypes. Urban students from several Massachusetts cities (in a coalition called Teens Leading The Way) have chosen to fight for a statewide civic education requirement. Today, they will testify in the state capitol in favor of Senate bill # S00183 (which they wrote) to require a civics course.

Isn't "civics" boring and despised by kids? Aren't today's youth slackers, obsessed by celebrity culture but apathetic about politics? And aren't kids from Boston, Lowell, Worcester, and other urban school systems especially "at risk" for dropping out -- not champions of extra academic requirements?

The answer to each of these questions is no. Young people volunteer in their communities at higher rates than their parents did and voted at near-record levels in 2008 (though not so much in 2009 and 2010). Many youth are notably idealistic, concerned about serious public issues, and eager to learn more.

To be sure, young people's knowledge of political and civic issues is not impressive. In this year's National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) in civics, only 24 percent of high school seniors scored at "proficient" or higher, demonstrating solid understanding of the topic. Many young people are critical of their own civic and political knowledge, and that is one explanation they offer for why they don't vote. But they favor educational experiences and requirements that would boost what they know. In a national poll we conducted almost a decade ago, two thirds of young Americans favored a new mandatory civics requirement for high school graduation.

Urban students have an impressive record of constructive civic engagement, as shown by Lowell kids' sustained effort to get the voting age lowered to 17 in their city, and many other projects. Like young people everywhere, they respond exceptionally well when given opportunities to contribute to their communities. Youth who enroll in programs like Lowell's United Teen Equality Center (UTEC) or YouthBuild flourish and succeed because they are treated as assets and challenged to do serious work for their communities, not viewed as chronic problems.

Finally, "civics" need not be boring but is often quite engaging. The word "civics" summons a scene of a teacher diagramming the three branches of government on a chalkboard for rows of silent students. Young people do need to understand the structure of their government. But effective civics teachers introduce the facts as part of interactive discussions and projects on issues that matter to kids. For instance, if students discuss crime in their neighborhood and develop effective, research-based recommendations for reducing it, then the relationship between the city council and the police department will matter to them and they will be eager to learn about it.

That is why the young people in Teens Leading The Way are supporting legislation to require the study of government, history, and civil rights along with opportunities to use such knowledge to create community change through service and community-action projects. Service, when tied to classroom work, has been found to boost students' graduation rates and college attendance, probably because they gain positive motivations and skills.

These elements of effective civic education have been demonstrated to work in rigorous research. They are already offered by excellent teachers in some of our schools, but many kids never experience them. That is why the students are fighting for "civics" on behalf of themselves and their generation.