Horizon, Host: Ted Simons

September 17, 2009


Host: Ted Simons

Civic Education


  • Director of ASU’s Center for Civic Education and Leadership, Sherman Elliott, talks about the center’s mission to enhance civics education in Arizona’s public schools. He’ll comment on the Center’s Study of Civic Education in Arizona which indicates that civic education has been pushed to the back burner and is not being effectively delivered in Arizona.
Guests:
  • Sherman Elliott - Director, ASU’s Center for Civic Education and Leadership
Category: Education

View Transcript
Ted Simons: Today is constitution day, 222nd anniversary of the signing of our nation's founding document. We'll mark the occasion by taking a look at civic education in Arizona's schools. We'll hear from the director of ASU's center for civic education and leadership in a moment. But first, producer David Majure and photographer Richard Torruellas take us to a school where civics is being taught despite certain challenges.

Lee Deremo: We have Canada and we have about 2 minutes.

David Majure: Lee Deremo teaches fourth grade at Lookout Mountain elementary school in the Washington district. He helps his kids master reading, writing, and math. And whenever he can, Lee tries to teach them civics.

Lee Deremo: Make sure that they know what's going on in their government and how it's structured, so they can take an active part in their world.

David Majure: Lee believes strongly in civic education. But he says it doesn't have a strong place in public education.

Lee Deremo: To be honest, pretty much a nonexistent place. Because one, it's not tested. And the big push in Arizona right now is the AIMS test, and if it's not tested, it's kind of pushed to the side because you need to focus on those standards that are. These areas here are all tested areas.

David Majure: To illustrate his point, Lee brought out a huge binder containing the fourth grade curriculum.

Lee Deremo: Within all this, here is the civics education. One, two, three pages. And so when these areas are being tested, and this isn't, this is the first thing that goes out the door. Civics education tends to be the first thing to go.

David Majure: That might help explain why Arizona high schoolers had a hard time answering some questions.

Matthew Ladner : What do we call the first 10 amendments to the constitution? Answer, the bill of rights? What are the two parts of the US Congress? Answer, the senate and the house.

David Majure: Matthew Ladner of the Goldwater institute is reading center a list of questions included in a recent survey of about 1300 students.

Matthew Ladner : We hired a survey firm to go out and survey high school students in Arizona, and we administered the United States citizenship test as a part of the survey.

David Majure: That's the test immigrants must pass to become a US citizen. From a bank of 100 questions, they're given 10 to answer, and they must get six correct to pass.

Matthew Ladner : Overall, only 3.5% of Arizona public school students scored a six or better. The results were bad. Public school students, only around a quarter knew who George Washington -- that George Washington was the first president of the United States. About the same percentage could identify the author of the Declaration of the Independence. That's really bad. 42% can't identify the ocean on the East Coast of the United States. That's stunning. After we published this study I got a number of calls from social studies teachers from around the state telling me things like, well, my school puts a tremendous amount of pressure on me to teach algebra items that are going to be on the AIMS test. Basically we have to teach to the test on algebra. Social studies is not a part of the AIMS test, and there's an expression that says if you don't test it, the kids don't learn it.

Lee Deremo: The idea of the three branches, but then it all twists together and it comes together as one government.

David Majure: Lee makes sure his kids are learning civics.

Lee Deremo: Today we're working on the three branches of government. And how they intertwine with each other. As we get into it, it will be part of their writing lessons, and it will be part of their reading as well. So what you have to do as kind of sneak that civics education in, back into your curriculum.

David Majure: That's one way to get civics into the classroom. But what about the AIMS test? If it's part of the problem, might it also be a solution?

Matthew Ladner : I'm open to a variety of different possibilities. If the question is, can we include social studies and civics on AIMS? My answer is yes.

Lee Deremo: No. I think civics education is really an open education, where there needs to be a lot of discussion, a lot of back and forth talk about what is going on in the government and what is going on in their world. When you stick that on an aims test, it becomes very narrowed, very focused. And then those few things will be taught and not well. It would be to get them to pass that test for civics education. But really forget civics education.

Ted Simons: Here now to talk about the state of civics education in Arizona is Sherman Elliot, director of ASU's center for civic education and leadership. Good to have you on the program.

Sherman Elliot: Thank you. Pleasure.

Ted Simons: The running theme of what we just heard was that because social studies is not included on the AIMS test, no one has time to teach social studies. Is that valid?

Sherman Elliot: Absolutely. That's what our study showed. We got good concrete data from throughout the state. We looked at over 168 teachers there. Over 5,000 students. And we asked them quite frankly, are you engaging in social studies? Basic foundational knowledge, or discussion topics, etc. And overwhelmingly we're finding teachers are pressured to teach reading, writing, and math, at the expense of social studies.

Ted Simons: So is it a question of, either AIMS or social studies? Or can social studies be included into either AIMS or some other standard to measure test?

Sherman Elliot: I think that answer is going to be up to individual districts and hopefully the state will put some leverage on them. Ultimately we need some kind of an assessment. We need a test so the taxpayers and parents and learners know how are we doing? What do we know and what do we not know? And the only way to do that is to come up with a fair assessment. I think that would drive some really good instruction.

Ted Simons: Let's talk about why civics education is so important. Your study mentioned the fact that when there is education in the classroom, it brings about a variety of results.

Sherman Elliot: It does. The reality is, students, kids, they like to engage in civics when it happens. So we found overwhelmingly the more politics or current events discussed openly, talked about, processed with students, they themselves became patriotic, they became interested in making change in their communities and their neighborhoods, they got very much on fire and excited about civic education. The opposite is true as well. When it was not discussed, when it was not talked about, not part of the curriculum, they were disinterested and dispassionate.

Ted Simons: I was going to say, looking at the report, the more kids discussed politics, the more interested they are, the more likely they'll sign a petition or take part in a boycott. Increases the idea that they think government can make a difference, or they can make a difference in government, I should say, and that increases the likelihood that they are patriotic. These all sound like pretty positive things, so why aren't we emphasizing -- it's amazing so little social studies is being taught.

Sherman Elliot: It is amazing to me. Look at the fifth grade, for example. Fifth grade, there are 90 objectives that deal with social studies. 90 performance objectives that a child, a learner must be able to do before they leave fifth grade. That's actually more than, say, signs or math. Yet social studies is barely taught in most fifth grade classrooms. We find declining interest from teachers not because they're not passionate, but because aims tests, AIMS assesses math, writing, reading, and the future science.

Ted Simons: States that don't necessarily have an aimslike test or may not emphasize a standard test like AIMS as much, do they get more civics education?

Sherman Elliot: Actually we're finding this is part of an Arizona study, but our research is also national. We're finding this is the trend across the country. People are being really woken up to the fact, and I think it's alarming. Do you want a democracy or not? Because democracy is not going to function unless children and students have the opportunity to learn about their government, learn about their rights and learn about their responsibilities. And public education, it's not happening. Teachers want to do it, they have the wherewithal to do it, but they're not going to be able to do it in the manner it's done now as long as that end test looks at everything but social studies.

Ted Simons: Let's talk about some of the recommendations in your report. Start standard-based civics test or put a civics test in AIMS. Viable? A civics test, can you do A, B, or C, or do you have to show you're really understanding the concept?

Sherman Elliot: That's going to be a challenge. I think you can. You can write a good assessment. You can find out exactly what children know and what they don't know. Sometimes because of money and because of efficiencies, we reduce it down to quick multiple choice tests. So it needs to be a broader test, like a writing test per se. But we have to measure it. We know that that's -- what gets tested is what gets taught. We're not going to test social studies, it's probably not going to get taught.

Ted Simons: Another recommendation is to somehow try to include social studies, civics, whatever, into regular reading and regular writing instruction. Again, is that viable, and is it something that can be done -- do people want to do that sort of thing, or does that make things complicated in the classroom?

Sherman Elliot: That's my personal favorite. We take teachers and say, how do you want to spice up your existing reading, writing, and math units, or even your science units? When we show them ways of integrating social studies, they get excited and the kids get excited, and now you have social studies being taught throughout the day in many subjects.

Ted Simons: So basically when you're doing a writing assignment, do one on George Washington. These sorts of things. When you're doing a reading assignment, learn to read about the founding fathers or your own state's ideas of elections.

Sherman Elliot: Or how about your neighborhood?

Ted Simons: There you go.

Sherman Elliot: Should I put a stop sign at the end of the street where a child died last year? Now you have children getting passionate about making change in their communities.

Ted Simons: Another recommendation was active learning. What are you talking about there?

Sherman Elliot: Government is not passive. You don't study government. We do government. Government is actionable. So we want kids to do what you and I do. We want them to read and be informed about issues in their community, and from there, voice an opinion. I don't want this to be the case. I want change in my life. That's part of learning how to exercise your right in a democracy.

Ted Simons: What about volunteerism and Service learning in these sorts of things? Recommendation is, do more of it. Can you do more of it?

Sherman Elliot: Absolutely. It's going to be a challenge with the current state of resources being allocated to the public schools, but I think it's going to get better and change. And when it does, one of the areas where we can see an impact right away are getting kids involved in our community by giving back. Learning through Service is part of civic engagement.

Ted Simons: Indeed. And also, the idea of becoming more politically active, just being more active in a civic kind of minded way is a recommendation. I gotta ask, because we're kind of veering into this area, to where some parents might be uncomfortable. And there might be a challenge for teachers who, let's face it, there were a significant number of parents who didn't want their children to hear the president of the United States speak to their child. If you have that, how can you have a teacher suggesting it's a good idea to boycott? It's a good idea to be politically active? Some parents are going to say, no, it's not.

Sherman Elliot: That's what you're saying is a great point we don't have a viable strong civics education program, we have people who are now young adults and they're going to become parents and say, no, it's too divisive, don't get involved. That's deck only -- democracy. For democracy to be sustainable every child needs to know how to participate. How I do learn how to disagree with my neighbor? How do I learn how to listen to my neighbor? We're all going to come from different walks of life and have different perspectives. How else will a child learn how to engage in society unless they practice it, they experiment with it in public education?

Ted Simons: Yet you know as well as I do, there will be parents who say, I don't want the experiment. I don't want my kid thinking that a boycott or civil disobedience or civil action, just civic action, I don't want my kid questioning the status quo.

Sherman Elliot: Sure. That's always going to happen. Maybe the boycott or civil disobedience are the extreme example. But a more common example might be that when you're writing your essay for the week, you're journaling about how you feel about an issue in your community, in your neighborhood. I'd be surprise if parents don't want them to express their opinions.

Ted Simons: What do you want to see from Arizona policymakers as far as the study? What do you want them to do with it?

Sherman Elliot: I want them to read through the recommendations. That came from a wide variety of folks. This is not the center dictating what we think and feel -- dictating what we think. We gathered them in June. We gathered legislators, nonprofit leaders, teachers, principals, professors. We showed them research for Arizona and said, you come up with a recommendation. And they did. And we cleaned them up and presented them to the community and so I really hope the legislature, I'd be happy to talk to them any time, will go through the recommendations and see what is viable. What can we do now to restore the study of democracy in our public schools?

Ted Simons: Finally, is there the political will to do this?

Sherman Elliot: I think there is. I think Barack Obama has helped in some ways. The reality is, we're going to disagree with some folks and we're going to agree with them at other times. We have to engage them and teach our children how to engage. Do we want to create a society where kids leave school and have no idea how to participate in a democracy? If we do, like sustainability on the earth, I don't think democracy will be around for a while.

Ted Simons: Interesting stuff. Thanks for joining us.

Sherman Elliot: Pleasure, thank you.

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