Testing Threatens "Civic Education"

David Randall

A recent article in Education Week asks “Could Testing Wreck Civic Education?” The article is a puff piece for the New Civics—service learning, civic engagement, action projects, and other forms of “experiential learning” which disguise vocational training in progressive activism as “civics education.”

The most recently headlined exercise in civic engagement was students across the country leaving school to demonstrate in the “Climate Strike.” New York City’s Department of Education allowed students to take part in the local Climate Strike. Students weren’t given permission to join a counter-protest. The time the students were out of class was time lost—hours of real education about science or civics they will never be able to make up.

The New Civics advocates worry that standardized tests, which require extensive factual knowledge, will divert student attention from the progressive activism training they prefer.

"They [the standardized tests] don't tell us if young people know how to mobilize their communities to get resources or pass laws they care about," said Jessica Marshall, who oversaw social studies in Chicago, and is now pursuing her doctoral degree.

It now appears that the Civics Education Initiative, and similar campaigns, don’t just work to increase students’ civic knowledge. They also work very effectively to stymy the New Civics. Opponents of the New Civics should take heart—and take notes. The best way to stop the New Civics is to provide stiff requirements in traditional civics, ideally keyed to rigorous standardized testing.

Of course, standardized testing isn’t enough. Students should also learn how to conduct disengaged discussions of America’s foundational civic texts, such as the Federalist and the Gettysburg Address. That’s to prepare them for college-level civics education—and, even more importantly, to prepare them to be good citizens.

America’s families and churches should also encourage students to do good civic works, such as volunteering for their local fire department, policeman’s auxiliary, gun safety training, Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps, and hospice work. But none of that should be done by the schools, who should concentrate on actually educating students.

The most encouraging single fact in the Education Week article is that “Fewer than 3 in 10 [students] said they're interested in political issues or qualified to participate in them.” Students shouldn’t be consumed with politics—they should know their lives are richer and fuller when politics is only part of the whole. Then, it is wonderful that students still feel a sense of humility, and realize they aren’t fully qualified to participate in politics. All students—all of us—should be aware first of how little we know.

It’s the only way to learn.

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