Lack of Civic Education = Lack of Youth Participation in Politics

Home » Lack of Civic Education = Lack of Youth Participation in Politics

In the 2016 election only 46 percent of people aged 18-29 voted compared to over 70 percent of people who were aged 65+. Why are young people not voting?

In 2001, President, George Bush created the No Child Left Behind Act, with the goal of helping children and schools in low income areas. The act put an emphasis on holding schools accountable for their children’s performance. With No Child Left Behind, students in grades 3-8 had to be tested every year in mathematics and English.

Now, students must be tested on science, math and English every year, but not on social studies.

“Since the No Child Left Behind Act, on average, students lost about an hour a week of social study time in education,” Dr. Tina Heafner, President of the National Council of Social Studies, researcher and professor, said.

Students graduating high school across the nation are, therefore, uneducated about current politics and government procedures. This is one of many factors as to why only 46 percent of people aged 18-29 voted in 2016.

What are Academic Standards?

One of the effects of the push for testing was academic standards. In public schools, academic standards are benchmarks or goals for what students should know and be able to do after each grade level. The standards start from Kindergarten up to 12th grade.

Depending on what state a person is in, there are different standards and tests to follow. So, think of academic standards as an outline of a paper.  The school districts/state boards of education decide on the curriculum to meet those standards.

Effects of No Child Left Behind in Public Schools

According to the Pennsylvania State Academic Standards the number of standards created for English and math compared to social studies and science is nearly doubled. For Civics and Government, there are four academic standards.  The standards involving politics and government are only in effect for grades 3, 6, 9 and 12.

5.1: Students must understand the importance and purpose of a government

5.2: People’s Rights and Responsibilities

5.3: How the Government Works?

5.4: How International Relationships Function?

Based on the four standards, students are not taught anything about the government and  politics until the 3rd grade. It is not until the 6th grade when civic education is recommended to be taught again, that is three years without civic education.

“There is not a lot of accountability within the states when it comes to social studies,” said Stefanie Wager, board member of the National Council of Social Studies. “There are no federal requirements created by the government that states have to test students on social studies.”

In the state of Pennsylvania, every Pennsylvania student in grades 3 through 8 is assessed in English Language Arts (ELA) and Math. While with science, students get assessed from grades 4-8. There are currently no yearly assessments for social studies.

Because of the No Child Left Behind Act, in Pennsylvania there is no assessments for social studies and yearly assessments for English and math. There are even math and ELA specialists in every state that work with groups of children who are struggling with the ELA and math curriculum.

According to the Social Studies Specialist website, currently 33 out of 50 states have a social studies specialist. Pennsylvania does not have one.

“There are ELA and Math specialists in every state,” said Dr. Heafner. “Most states do not have a social studies specialist.”

Why is Civic Education not Being Taught?  

A 2016 survey by the Annenberg Public Policy Center found that only 26 percent of Americans can name all three branches of government. So, what is being taught the most in social studies?

According to the social studies curriculum, history must be taught every year for social studies in P.a. Below is a table showing the standards that teachers are recommended to follow for history.

“If you look at the traditional standards created over the course of centuries, the standards want children to become good citizens, but what happened was the focus became patriotism and Americanization,” said Dr. Karin E. Gedge, professor of history and secondary education coordinator at West Chester University. “It was more about indoctrinating the students into the fact that America is number one and not about the rights and responsibilities we have as citizens.”

According to the book Lies My Teacher Told Me by James Loewen, the history textbooks are different by state and the textbooks got some of the history wrong. The textbooks students used in public schools often oversimplified conflicts and inequalities our country still phases today.

“Overall, as a nation, we teach education from the dominant’s perspective. We have white- washed history education,” Dr. Heafner said. “We have put people of color and other minority groups in positions where they believe they do not matter.”

Calls for curriculum change exist, and members of the National Committee of Social Studies are working to change the outlook on social studies. The committee wants to promote civic education and change the history curriculum by adding history about the LGBTQ and other minority groups who have suffered from systematic oppression.

One of the challenges is getting States on board and getting teachers to start implementing civic education in classrooms. Teachers, however, have a lot of pressure to fulfill.

Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

Pressure on Teachers

According to the Atlantic, over 50 million students attend roughly 100,000 schools, which are educated by about 3 million teachers. The ratio of 50 million kids to 3 million teachers is about 17:1, which puts a lot of pressure on teachers to teach everything (Math, English Social Studies, Science).

“A lot of teachers feel like they do not know enough about politics to teach in their classrooms without getting any push back from parents,” said Dr. Paula McVoy, author of the Political Classroom and professor at NC State University. “Teachers are also scared to lose their jobs because of the administrators’ and parents’ influence in school.”

With politics also being a very controversial topic, a lot of teachers are scared to have debates and to have conversations about politics because they are afraid to lose their jobs.

“Administrators in certain schools, totally discourage teachers to teach politics in schools because, they are afraid that parents will report the teacher and the school,” said Dr. Gedge. “Everyone has to be on board with each other from the teachers to the administrators.”

With the fear of losing their jobs and public backlash, teachers are put into a very difficult position to succeed.

“Teachers are paid with tax-payer dollars and lack support,” said Dr. Heafner. “Teachers can be fired based on what they teach in a classroom.”

How Can Teachers Teach Politics in a Classroom?

According to the Political Classroom, teachers that provide discussions with facts and resources students can go to can create productive conversations.

“Based on my research and work with my book, when handling controversial topics come prepared with facts and information,” said Dr. Mcvoy. “Do your research because these are conversations our youth has to have to be good citizens in a democracy.”

The National Council of Social Studies has created standards and programs that can help teachers teach civic education to the youth. They have board meetings and virtual programs to get teachers educated and ready for civics education.

Besides teachers, parents and state board members must be on board to make change happen.

A lot of adults have a conception that youth learners cannot learn adult issues. This is a misconception.

“Children are citizens too,” said Dr. Heafner. “The majority of adults do not understand the intellectual compacity of young learners and their ability to understand complex situations.”

For our public-school systems to change, everyone must be on board from the school districts to the teachers and students, holding people accountable and speaking about experiences can promote change.

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Youth Voters Unite is a transmedia storytelling project produced by senior Communication majors at Cabrini University. Students in Senior Convergence: Media for Social Justice are reporting this academic year on the voting process and voting justice topics. Their goal is to educate youth voters on the importance of engaging in the political process and claiming their right to shape their own future. 


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