Education Is Failing America’s Future by Forgetting Its Past

All states should require a passing mark on a civics test or the U.S. citizenship exam for a high-school diploma, say the authors. Today, only eight states do so.

| 04 Feb 2024 | 04:58

Last year, eighth grade test scores in civics and U.S. history hit record lows. The decline didn’t start with pandemic school closings. But they made it worse and revealed its extent.

Less than half of adults can name the three branches of the U.S. government. Another 25 percent can’t name even one. And just over one-third of Americans can pass the U.S. citizenship test.

These sad facts are a reminder that the future success of our nation is far from guaranteed. We must acknowledge the imperfections of our current system and work to reform them -- a challenging but hardly impossible task.

For starters, history curricula should be based on the United States’ founding documents: the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Federalist Papers.

Some states have prioritized reading primary sources and writing assignments so that students develop background knowledge, vocabulary, and the ability to advance evidence-based arguments. The 1993 Massachusetts Education Reform Act, for example, prioritized the study of U.S. history through primary documents in each grade and required passing a U.S. history exam for high school graduation.

New York and several other states also previously adopted rigorous state standards for history and social science.

In some cases, these reforms were repealed in favor of trendier classes in “social studies.” But the principles underlying the 1993 Massachusetts law and others like it got the fundamental questions right. They are worthy of revival.

All states should also require a passing mark on a civics test or the U.S. citizenship exam for a high-school diploma. Today, only eight states do so.

Unfortunately, New York is not one of them. While the state’s “Seal of Civic Readiness” program offers a more comprehensive civics education, the corresponding Regents exam that students must pass for this designation is in U.S. History or Global History & Geography– not civics. And the seal is optional, meaning only a fraction of students will benefit from the program.

New York should commit to holding all of their students to a higher standard–not just those who already seek to go above and beyond in the classroom.

If we’re to truly become the educated society the Founders envisioned, we’ll have to invest in better training for teachers as well. Most states have dropped even basic requirements for people entering the teaching profession, blaming a shortage of qualified labor.

Finally, the institutes of higher learning that train teachers must convey the centrality of civics and history in a curriculum geared toward producing good citizens.

Education is the responsibility of state and local actors. Rather than retaining the top-down approach that has led to our current failures, school systems should engage with parents to understand their educational priorities for their children. Expanded school-choice programs can provide the means for parents to go elsewhere when they are dissatisfied with available public education options.

In 2012, New York tasked a panel of K-12 teachers, college professors, and individuals from social studies councils with overhauling the state’s social studies framework. The draft went through two rounds of public comment, and the panel reviewed over 2,000 responses. The final version, which incorporates feedback from the community, was approved in 2014 and is among the strongest curriculum frameworks in the nation -- a testament to what can be achieved with inclusive, nonpartisan reforms.

The importance of a nonpartisan, fact-based U.S. history and civics education cannot be overstated. Without one, students will not be able to take their place as informed and engaged citizens dedicated to preserving the legacy of America’s Founders.

We know how to provide that sort of education. We just need the will to make it happen. The future of our great country depends on it.

Jamie Gass is Director for the Center for School Reform at Pioneer Institute, a Boston, MA-based think tank. Chris Sinacola is Director of Communications for the group. They are co-editors of Restoring the City on a Hill: U.S. History and Civics in America’s Schools.