Nearly 184 months ago, under the leadership of the National Governors Association, teachers, parents and other education experts gathered together to chart a national course for effective student learning. They named it Common Core Education Standards and made it available for states to adopt. So far, 43 states have done so, intending maximum flexibility for schools and communities. The emphasis is on mathematics and language skills, but Common Core should be improved by adding a civic learning component.
Civic learning requires a renewed emphasis — a dedication to teaching basic U.S. history, economics, foreign policy and government. The evidence of its absence from student education is pervasive. The October 2014 issue of Time magazine confirmed that only 36 percent of all Americans can name the three branches of the federal government — the Executive, Legislative and Judicial — provided for in the U.S. Constitution. Many citizens routinely have trouble identifying national leaders. Voting by citizens each election is less than robust. A recent YouTube episode showed an interviewer asking 10 random students from Washington, D.C.'s American University to name one U.S. Senator. Only one of the 10 could do so, but all were able to name the theme song from the movie Frozen.
Educators supporting Common Core justifiably argue that developing a student's mathematical skills allows them to incorporate reason and formulaic analysis to problem solving. Emphasizing language skills encourages them to learn effective expression by perfecting their understanding and use of words, whether spoken or written. Developing mathematics and language skills will allow our students to better compete with their peers internationally.
But does this go far enough? Is de-emphasizing civics detrimental to the perpetuation of core American concepts: freedom, free enterprise, the rule of law, human rights, individual liberty and justice? Of course, of course!
Most Americans are sadly ignorant of the basics of the American system. Understanding significant events in American history helps us analyze current events and the importance of adhering to historic principles in public policy decisions. Understanding basic economics helps Americans consider the consequences of federal budget decisions and other money matters; that supply and demand are essential principles of capitalism and market-oriented policies.
With the United States historically acting as a bulwark against aggression by foreign nations, it's important for Americans to be aware of where in the world young soldiers are sent by their government to protect and preserve freedom. With Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan regularly in the news, Americans should know where their human and financial treasures are being spent.
American government is now so massive, so complex, that most Americans have little understanding of how the federal, or state, government works. With more than a trillion dollars being spent each year on federal government functions, more Americans should be able to understand how and on what their federal tax dollars are being spent. Absent an understanding of government, citizens are at the mercy of the federal bureaucracy or compelled to hire a lobbying group or law firm to protect their rights when facing a federal problem — a luxury few can afford.
If rising to global competition is a common core, then civics education is a critical companion. At a time when the New York Post has reported that civic engagement is "slipping" among young people, an emphasis on civic learning can encourage Americans to appreciate the 239-year odyssey our nation has undertaken. Creating a better life for millions of free and democratic citizens — and for millions more around the world — based on the concepts of liberty that are embodied in America's founding documents has been a hallmark of civics.
Even today, as American culture changes, civic learning is supported by Americans of all political and economic persuasions.
According to a December 2014 Wall Street Journal article, civic learning is on the increase. Seven states now require that high school seniors pass the immigrant citizenship test as a condition of graduation. The Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education has created a civic learning task force to address this gap in student learning. The Edward Kennedy Institute in Boston is focused on student learning and the lessons of Sen. Kennedy's long service in the U.S. Senate. The Washington Post recently featured an article titled, "Improving the U.S. in 2015 begins with knowing more about it."
The more our young people learn that our great country was built by people who staked their lives on the proud purposes of our founding, the more they'll learn that our citizenship should never be taken for granted. Now that's a Common Core principle all Americans can accept. ♦