On MLK Day, A Civics Lesson Is Needed For All Students

01/14/2018 07:36 pm ET

We’ve all heard of Martin Luther King, Jr., of course. You may not have heard of Darry Powell-Young. He’s a former Chicago Public Schools teacher who has a crusade just as important as Dr. King’s mission: to improve civic education for all Americans, not just African-Americans.

At a meeting of the Southern Political Science Association (SPSA) in New Orleans, Powell-Young told the audience “16 percent of high school students are African-American, but only four percent get a good civics education.”

This isn’t to say that young African-Americans aren’t voting. They are! And it’s not just because of Barack Obama running for office. In fact, after numbers tumbled to post-Civil Rights lows in 1988, numbers improved in the 1990s.

As Mark Hugo Lopez for the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) reported, “In 2004, youth voter turnout increased substantially and much of this increase was driven by an increase in voting among African-American youth….African-Americans experienced a jump in turnout of more than 11 percentage points over 2000—the greatest increase in turnout of any racial or ethnic minority group during the recent election cycle.”

Certainly, such numbers continued to spike during the historic 2008 and 2012 elections, for all Americans. And participation continued, despite attempts to reduce turnout, with court cases and legislation seeking to undermine the Voting Rights Act. But even closures of Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) offices in Alabama didn’t dampen turnout at all in the 2017 Senate special election. So what’s the problem?

The issue is that voting is often the only factor of political participation for blacks, whites, Hispanics, Asian-Americans, which we focus upon. As Powell-Young points out, we cover lots of STEM for students, but not much for civics. The subject is optional in most places, and poorly covered if at all.

It’s not just true for African-American students. It’s the case for all students. The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) showed that less than a quarter of all high school seniors performed at the proficient stage. Only four percent of all high school seniors were considered advanced, and more than a third were way below basic level. African-Americans ran twenty percentage points behind whites in proficiency and 20 points ahead in the number of “below basic” grades.

This wasn’t always the case. In fact, America was number one in civics engagement in an international test on the subject, outperforming our top foreign counterparts in 1990s. As for African-Americans, there is a strong prior history of civic engagement, according to Johari R. Shuck and Robert J. Helfenbein in the Journal of Civic Literacy. And then we experienced hyperpartisanship, and a breakdown in racial relations, even schools. Many public school teachers and administrators sought to avoid fights or dealing with “controversial subjects.”

The “No Child Left Behind Act” also played a role in wiping out civics courses. “Until the 1960s, it was common for American high school students to have three separate courses in civics and government,” wrote Amanda Litvinov with the National Education Association. “But civics offerings were slashed as the curriculum narrowed over the ensuing decades, and lost further ground to ‘core subjects’ under the NCLB-era standardized testing regime.” That’s how we fell so far so fast in civics in just under two decades.

“Students don’t learn why we have this government, why we have democracy,” Powell-Young added. “We don’t know what sacrifices have been made. They know crime and poverty, but don’t know government, and how it can be a means of improving things. They aren’t able to make connections.”

One reason is because students don’t have courses where issues are discussed, allowing them to make those connections, according to Powell-Young. As for service-learning projects, “There are 40-hour requirements,” the Chicago teacher noted. “But students and administrators don’t always follow through on whether these are ever done.”

This lack of civic engagement tends to spill over to other areas as well. Professor Cathy Cohen points out that African-American youth participation is lacking for extracurricular activities, community service, and activities needed for civic engagement, reinforcing research by Professor Lonnie R. Sherrod.

Powell-Young recommends seeking out the best school practices, and training educators to follow these good ideas. These include not only learning about how government works, but also why democracy matters, and discuss important issues. After all, Dr. King’s message wasn’t about memorizing facts for a test, or cutting-out on community service. It was about engaging each American in creating change, for the better.

John A. Tures is a professor of political science at LaGrange College in LaGrange, Georgia. He can be reached at jtures@lagrange.edu. His Twitter account is JohnTures2. �

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