Lessons in citizenship

Why civics education is important and a look at how civics is being taught in NH classrooms



Three years ago, state Senator Regina Birdsell had an idea.

“Watching some of the late-night talk shows at the time, they would ask college graduates who is the Speaker of the House,” Birdsell (R-Hampstead) said, “and they had no clue. It was so disappointing and sad.

“I wanted our children in New Hampshire to be able to understand our founding fathers. Why they did what they did, why they put our government together the way they did. Because our government, our founding fathers, they knew what they were doing.”

So she took her idea — to require every student in New Hampshire to pass the test given to those wanting to be United States citizens as a requirement of graduation — and introduced it as a bill in the state senate. From there, that bill went to a committee, where it was poked, debated, tweaked and changed.

The new version, one that did not mandate, but recommended students be able to pass a civics assessment exam, was approved by the house and senate and signed by the governor.

That is how Birdsell’s bill became a law last year. It’s not a complicated process, however many may not know how it’s done or that there are three branches of government or how a FOIA works or that a FOIA is a Freedom of Information Act request that anyone can make.

“People talk about teaching civics,” said state Senator Lou D’Allesandro (D-Manchester) and former civics teacher, “but they don’t really teach civics. And as a result, we have an uninformed public.”

In 2016, D’Allesandro co-sponsored a bill with State Senator David Watters (D-Dover) that now mandates a locally-devised civics assessment test and also enshrines specific minimums the curriculum must have, including opportunities and responsibilities for civic involvement, skills to effectively participate in civic affairs and the role and responsibilities of a citizen to engage in civic activity, as well as the nuts and bolts of how governments work.

According to Senate Bill 45, “Such instruction shall begin no later than the beginning of the eighth grade and shall continue in all high schools as a component of a one-credit course of instruction required for high school graduation in United States and New Hampshire history and a one-half credit course of instruction required for high school graduation in United States and New Hampshire government/civics.”

It was signed into law this year and takes effect Aug. 7. D’Allesandro said he’s been introducing this bill since he became a senator but it’s never gotten any traction until now.

“I think the reason it got its juice this time is look what is happening locally and nationally,” he said.

“People lack interest [in civic life]; they don’t vote. They don’t know how the government functions. They really don’t know the difference between their congressmen [federal] and their local representatives [state].

“All of this is starting to manifest itself. People are starting to realize there is a great need for civics education.”

The role of civics in society

By definition, civics is the study of the rights and duties of citizens.

“I would argue,” said Lawrence M. Paska, executive director of the National Council for the Social Studies, “that it’s important because we are talking about what makes us understand our rights and roles and responsibilities in the world around us. And I mean ‘our’ as in me as an individual as in us as a community. And I think that’s ultimately where civics education is core to our educational system.”

Indeed it was meant to be just that, said Martha Madsen, president of the NH Institute for Civics Education, pointing out that one of the reasons public schools came about was to ensure an educated and informed electorate.

Thomas Jefferson once noted, “I know of no safe depository of the ultimate power of the society but the people themselves, and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with wholesome discretion, then remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education. This is the true corrective of abuses of constitutional power.”

When that education is lost or insufficient, as former Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States David Souter pointed out during a 2012 speech in Concord, bad things can happen.

He told the audience that he wasn’t worried about the republic being undone by a foreign invasion or military coup, but rather civic ignorance – by people not knowing who was responsible when problems go unaddressed. Because, he said, when the problems get bad enough — such as with another significant terrorist attack like 9/11 or another financial collapse – “some one person will come forward and say, ‘give me total power, and I will solve the problem.’ That is how the Roman Republic fell. Augustus became emperor not because he arrested the Roman Senate, but because he promised to solve problems that were not being solved.”

If we know who is responsible, however, he said, then we the people can hold them responsible. If we don’t, well then, we stay away from the polls, we don’t vote, and we don’t hold those responsible to account.

“And the day will come when somebody will come forward and we — and the government in effect — will say ‘take the ball and run with it,’ ‘do what you have to do’,” he said. “And that is the way Democracy dies.”

In the classroom

In 1998, civics knowledge started being tested in the eighth grade with the 2014 National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP). Scores from 134 to 177 show a basic knowledge; scores between 178 and 212 show a proficient knowledge; anything higher than 213 shows an advanced knowledge.

Average scores on civic knowledge are consistently above the “basic” level; however, 23 percent of the nation’s children score in the proficient or advanced range, according to the 2014 NAEP results, the most recent available. NAEP results also show that compared to 1998, the average score for eighth-graders increased from 150 to 154 with no significant change in the average score compared to 2010.

That means the average student performs at the basic level in civics and that, at least at the time of the NAEP, has some understanding of competing ideas about purposes of government; can describe advantages of limited government; is able to define government, constitution, the rule of law, and politics; can identify the fundamental principles of American democracy and the documents from which they originate; understand the importance of a shared commitment to the core values of American democracy; recognize the components of the political process and understand personal, political, and economic rights and responsibilities; and can describe the purposes of some international organizations.

In New Hampshire, minimum standards require students to graduate with one credit in United States and New Hampshire history, a 1/2 credit of US and NH government/civics, a 1/2 credit in economics, including personal finance, and a 1/2 credit in world history, global studies or geography, said Heather Gage, director of the division of school improvement for the NH Department of Education.

“[NH] schools actually have to provide at least five courses to students in social studies,” she said.

Generally, social studies is taught in the early grades, New Hampshire history in fourth grade, American history in eighth grade and civics and government in ninth grade. While some students could opt to take further elective courses in civics and history, such as AP U.S. History, the ninth grade is the end of the required civics coursework.

Though the curriculum is developed locally, a social studies framework was developed by state and local officials in 2006 based on the NH Minimum Standards for Public School Approval that requires elementary and middle/junior high school students to “acquire knowledge and understanding of civics, economics, geography, and history.” It also requires that high school students “acquire knowledge and modes of inquiry” in the same four subjects “including the related areas of sociology, anthropology, and psychology.”

Up until D’Allessandro’s bill specifying what needed to be taught became law this year, state statutes only required instruction in the “privileges, duties, and responsibilities of citizenship and in the history, government, and constitutions of the United States and New Hampshire.”

“The Achievement Gap”

New Hampshire students are actually faring pretty well, said Dianna Gahlsdorf Terrell, a civics scholar and associate professor in the Department of Education at Saint Anselm College, based on her analysis of student performance scores on the NAEPs. In civics and history, New Hampshire students do significantly better than the national population, she said.

“How do we know that when the data isn’t disaggregated for these tests at the state level?” Gahlsdorf Terrell asked in a recent blog post on her website.

“The data show that English-native speakers, white children, children living in homes with a college graduate and children being raised outside of poverty perform much better than the national average – a phenomenon called ‘the Achievement Gap.’

“Similar to all of New England, New Hampshire’s über-homogeneous, English speaking, college-educated population generally does exceptionally well on these measures of academic success. In fact, the New England states – and NH in particular — perform equivalently to the highest performing nations globally.”

But while that is reason to take heart, Gahlsdorf Terrell said, there is not yet reason to celebrate.

According to Souter’s 2012 speech, civics education began its decline in about 1970 and never fully recovered. So when No Child Left Behind — which put the emphasis on math and reading — and the era of high-stakes testing came along, civics didn’t stand a fighting chance. The result, said Paska, is teachers have the tough job of trying to get all of the mandated and testable material, like STEM subjects, crammed into the day, often to the detriment of subjects like social studies and civics.

More than just the facts

Paska said that one of the ways his group advocates that teachers and school districts handle this issue is by finding creative ways to “sneak” civics into daily lessons.

For example, he said, part of the Common Core includes a new emphasis on nonfiction reading. Paska argued, why not let that reading be of one of the founding documents or a biography of one of the founders of the country? It may be a reading class, but students at a younger and younger age will be introduced and re-introduced to these historical figures and concepts.

Martha Madsen, president of the NH Institute for Civics Education, agrees and is hoping to take that one step further.

“We are advocating for a civics curriculum that is K through 12,” she said. “You need to touch on those things each year, just like we do with math and reading. It’s a cumulative skill and a cumulative set of skills, attitudes and knowledge. It’s not something you can teach in half a year.”

Skills, attitudes and knowledge are the crux of what advocates want civics education to look like heading into the future. Because while current assessments test whether students are being taught dates, events and basic concepts, Gahlsdorf Terrell argues civics needs to be about much more than that.

“These are really important ideas,” she said. “But the question becomes, is history knowledge something that is going to make a kid civically engaged? And that’s really where the disconnect is.”

More than facts and figures, Gahlsdorf Terrell said, civics teaches students actual skills such as how to be critical thinkers and readers, how to debate respectfully and effectively, how to disagree respectfully, and how to choose which sources to trust and which to disregard as bogus.

It also teaches the intangibles like the importance of participating in elections, what it means to be a part of a community and how societies make rules and govern, Paska said.

Paska said research shows that students find that these skills help them in other areas of school.

According to a National Council for the Social Studies survey, 95 percent of more than 52,000 students surveyed reported gaining academic skills as a result of their social studies coursework, with the biggest gains occurring in the ability to support an opinion, critical thinking and the ability to evaluate concepts and ideas.

Although she couldn’t say when this would happen, Gage said the State Board of Education has indicated they want to redo the social studies frameworks. She said it’s unclear whether the state will push for more civics classes or a more robust curriculum.

“We will not know that answer until we get into the work,” she said. “However, remember that standards are based on the content/skills we want students to know and be able to do and not actually stating what courses must be offered.”

The C3 concept

She said the state is looking to hire someone to head up the social studies department, and thus this project. The position is currently vacant.

Madsen said she hopes that going forward school districts will take a more experiential approach to civics and social studies based on the C3 concept. The guiding principles of the C3 framework are like the Common Core State Standards – these emphasize the acquisition and application of knowledge to prepare students for college, career and civic life.

What that would look like in the classroom, Madsen said, is each class would start with an age-appropriate question. Gahlsdorf Terrell adds that the question should be something that is local and relevant to the student. Once the problem is established, the students are guided through the process of doing rigorous research, learning media literacy as they go.

After they’ve gathered their information, the students would get the chance to hone their arguments and engage in debate and deliberation. Finally, they would agree on an informed course of action, which Madsen cautions doesn’t always mean protest. She said that could simply mean a letter to the editor of a local paper.

“There are many actions we can all take if we have an evidence-based opinion,” she said.

It’s from this process, said Gahlsdorf Terrell, that students will gain an appreciation and a knowledge of the history behind our civic ideals and principles, but how to actually live those principles in the here and now.

As much as they can, Gahlsdorf Terrell said, teachers in New Hampshire are trying to get as many of these skills and principles into the classroom already.

“They’re not necessarily making students memorize information, but they’re working through the concepts and themes much more generally,” Gahlsdorf Terrell said. “So they might talk about whether a class rule is ‘fair’ and what fair means to whom. They might practice how to solve a disagreement or make a big decision. They’ll talk about how different students in the class have different opinions that are informed by different beliefs.”

In that way, she said, they are exploring civic topics such as representation, conflict and diversity, all of which are central to understanding how to get along with and live with one another in a democracy. But they’re not necessarily talking in discrete terms beyond that.

“The majority of NH teachers are actually finding ways to cover and incorporate these concepts. Is it enough? It varies a lot, but to my mind there isn’t enough,” Gahlsdorf Terrell said. “There could be much more of it, and certainly much more support and higher quality support for these teachers to teach it.” 

Melanie Plenda is an award-winning freelance writer based in Keene.

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