Experts call for civics ed to start sooner than later

Experts call for civics ed to start sooner than later

(Calif.) Nearly everyone can agree that students should have access to civics education that will prepare them to participate meaningfully in our democratic republic, and according to experts, starting early is vital.

“Our system is complicated and it requires enlightened citizens to participate,” Charles Quigley, executive director of the Center for Civics Education, said in an interview. “Civics education should start as early as kindergarten, because kids can learn the basic ideas and increase in their sophistication and understanding as they continue through the years. One of the problems currently in civics education is that it’s often left to the 12th grade level, and by that time it’s too little too late.”

Earlier this month, Santa Clara County became the latest of 13 counties in California to create partnerships with non-profits and local superior courts to expand the focus on civics education in the classroom. Many of the programs focus on helping students understand the inner workings of the judicial branch and the state’s courts.

In Sacramento, the Third District Court of Appeal conducts some of its oral arguments on local campuses, allowing students to interact with its justices. In Butte County, students regularly answer questions about what’s in the news, and end the year by staging a mock trial at the Chico courthouse alongside a local judge, prosecutor, defense attorney and bailiff. Fresno County attorneys team up with students to explore community problems and lead service projects, and Humboldt County students study tribal courts in the state and witness firsthand how they operate.

According to poll results released last year from the Annenberg Public Policy Center, approximately 70 percent of adults were unable to even name all three branches of government, and about that many surveyed also believed that a ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court could be appealed. Additionally, almost 40 percent of participants said that the president has the power to declare war.

There is currently $1.7 million set aside for funding new professional development programs supporting history and civics education, and an expectation that Congress will allocate more in the 2018 budget plan. At the state level, both Delaware and Nevada included specifics to expand civics education in their federal Every Student Succeeds Plans, and leaders in Florida and Illinois are also encouraging districts to teach students more about how government works, especially in high school.

But as Quigley points out, even younger students are more aware of events like the white supremacy rally that took place this month in Charlottesville, in which a counter protester was killed. And when their parents and peers talk about current events, children will form their opinions as well–which is why schools need to help students by providing context, which isn’t always established in posts on social media or by cable news anchors and pundits.

“I keep hearing from the schools–even as early as elementary–that there’s more and more discussion on the playground about Trump and the government, so there’s obviously a lot of discussion going on at home, and that’s translating into the kids getting more interested and discussing it more with their friends,” Quigley explained. “Schools have to give kids the contextual framework in order to understand what is going on. They’ll hear this and that about politics, but in order to put it in proper context they have to understand the system and how it works.”

In Santa Clara County, a panel of education leaders and experts in civic education met this month to discuss how schools can support learning using engaging curriculum, instruction, and hands on opportunities to participate in civic activities and simulations of democratic processes and procedures–similar to that in Butte County.

Among the topics emphasized were critical thinking skills, examining biases, and involving students in local decision making through volunteer work with community organizations and participation in public meetings.

Quigley said that programs like these that not only help children understand how the U.S. government functions, but also connect them to their own communities are more likely to prepare students to become involved in the political process and actually ensure that they participate.

“When students go through good civics education programs they register to vote at higher rates than their peers, or they volunteer and get involved with their local communities,” Quigley said. “Good civics education increases knowledge and understanding of the fundamental principles on which our country is based, and when students have that, they become more active, committed and effective participants.”