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Libresco: These 'reforms' wound democracy

Photo Credit: TMS illustration/Nancy Ohanian/

Andrea S. Libresco is a Hofstra University education professor.

It's a perfect storm for civic education:

Federal funding for the Teaching American History grants program was cut by almost two-thirds in the budget deal last month.

Within the first five years of the enactment of No Child Left Behind, the Center on Education Policy found that 36 percent of school districts cut elementary class time for social studies to focus on tested subjects like math and language arts.

In his latest State of the Union speech, President Barack Obama highlighted science education in his Race to the Top program -- which means three (English, math and science) of the four traditional major subjects have been singled out as important. The one missing? Social studies.

Last year, in an effort to save money, New York State eliminated the 5th and 8th grade social studies assessments -- but none of the other major subjects'.

This month, the New York Board of Regents is considering making the 11th grade U.S. history and government assessment optional. If it does, students will be able to leave public school without ever being assessed in social studies.

Although few teachers are fans of standardized testing, they know what departing Education Commissioner David Steiner knows: "If we don't test it, we won't teach it." Although he was talking about arts education at the time, he may as well have been talking about social studies.

Why should we mourn the loss of instructional time for this subject? According to the National Council for the Social Studies, the primary purpose of the subject is "to help young people make informed and reasoned decisions for the public good as citizens of a culturally diverse, democratic society in an interdependent world."

Simply put, civic education is the most important subject in America. In the words of Amy Gutmann, president of the University of Pennsylvania, it has "moral primacy over other purposes of public education in a democratic society."

According to a newly published survey of more than 1,000 voters in New York State, the state of civic knowledge is not good. The Brennan Center for Justice's survey (led by Eric Lane of Hofstra Law School) found that, although almost eight out of 10 New York voters believe in the central importance of the Constitution, fewer than two in 10 consider themselves very familiar with the document.

Fewer than one-third of New Yorkers surveyed could identify strengthening the federal government as a goal of the Constitution. About the same number incorrectly believe the founders were seeking to create a Christian nation as they drafted the Constitution.

Only 5 percent of respondents knew that the Constitution was designed to prevent both the tyranny of the majority and of a small, influential minority. Sixty-two percent incorrectly thought the president, not Congress, has the power to declare war.

In a nation with a Supreme Court hotly debating the meaning of federalism, legislatures that seek to limit the influence of certain interest groups, and at least two (maybe three) undeclared wars, this level of civic ignorance is downright dangerous to our democracy.

Understanding some of the complex concepts in the Constitution and their current application takes time. If future voters aren't getting this civic education as students -- if, instead, time for social studies is cut -- our democracy suffers.

One of my student teachers tells me that in the Long Island elementary school district where she teaches, the children chant in unison every morning, "I pledge today to do my best in reading, math and all the rest." Social studies, one hopes, is included in "the rest," but we can guess that it gets a lot less time than our democracy warrants.

The inadequacies of civic knowledge predate the recent decade of standardized assessments that exclude social studies; after all, most of the New Yorkers in the Brennan Center survey were educated in the pre-No Child Left Behind days. But the accelerated devaluation of civic education puts our democracy at risk of further erosion.

Don't blame the teachers. The "winning" of the Race to the Top money means that New York State ties teacher evaluation to students' scores on state tests. Teachers understand that they won't be evaluated on their social studies teaching because there are no more assessments through the eighth grade and, maybe soon, beyond.

Back in 1848, Horace Mann deemed it imperative that "citizens of a Republic understand something of the true nature and functions of the government under which they live." One has to wonder: What will it take for the New York State Regents to recognize the imperative of civic education for the health of our democracy?