I'm currently reading Teaching America: The Case for Civic Education, edited by David Feith with contributors ranging across the political spectrum. A single theme is dominant in each work: civic literacy is unacceptably low for a republican government like ours to function correctly. Study after study has revealed America's profound and distressing ignorance of its own history and Constitution. The rule of the People is based on the notion that the People will be a strong check on government abuse. That, however, requires the People to first know that abuse is even going on (current events), to understand the proper sphere any particular public official operates in with corresponding powers and limits (the Constitution and attending laws), with a solid understanding of what is right and wrong in politics to begin with (political theory). Public schools fail on nearly all of these categories; those who learn them do so on their own initiative.
I think everyone knows this. It's not even really controversial. And yet, we continue down the same path, perhaps more out of apathy than anything else. I've pointed out my discontent with New York's history curriculum before. It is a creature of bureaucracy, more bent on allowing quantification of student results than improving student knowledge. Recalling for two years arcane factoids and writing a vapid essay qualifies as acceptable in New York. This hardly lives up to the lofty goals of Social Studies our state's Department of Education lays forth:
Courses of study should give students the knowledge, intellectual skills, civic understandings, and dispositions toward democratic values that are necessary to function effectively in American society. Ultimately, social studies instruction should help students assume their role as responsible citizens in America’s constitutional democracy and as active contributors to a society that is increasingly diverse and interdependent with other nations of the world. For example, students should be able to use the knowledge and skills acquired through social studies courses to solve problems and make reasoned decisions in their daily lives. Social studies courses should provide students with the background to conduct research in order to cast informed votes, with the skills to place conflicting ideas in context, and with the wisdom to make good judgments in dealing with the tensions inherent in society such as the enduring struggle to find the proper balance between protecting the rights of the individual and promoting the common good.
Not having a high school diploma in this era is an economic death sentence; failing to pass the history Regents Exams bars graduation. When the room has a high proportion of students who may not pass, the only option a teacher realistically has is to focus on those border line cases and do whatever possible to get them to squeak by. The highest achieving students have to hope there is an AP program in order to receive attention, the lowest students are considered lost, and those border line cases hopefully pass the test. This hardly helps "students assume their role as responsible citizens in America's constitutional democracy" (most people could not tell you what constitutional democracy means) who will "cast informed votes" (take a look at our voting rate and those who vote on issues rather than personalities) who "conduct research" (The Daily Show constitutes the main source of news for a ridiculously high proportion of Americans).
Ok, so we're not living up to those lofty goals, but students will at least recall some basic facts from world and U.S. history because they can pass the test, right? Everyone should be laughing at that thought. Once the test is passed, the information can be and usually is forgotten, except for those few who found the material interesting; those students generally knew the information prior to taking the class.
I would love to see a study on how many voting New York residents that passed the Global and United States Regents Exams in high school could pass them again now. We'll eliminate the essay part and give a passing grade of 30 correct responses to 50 questions. This is the general rule of thumb as to whether a student will pass the test. A response of 2 out of 5 is required on the essays, which amounts to making some vague statement about the topic at hand that wasn't handed to the student in the written directions. I would wager good money that less than one in four would pass.
So, why are we doing this? We're not creating engaged and thinking citizens. In the long run, we're not even creating citizens who recall factoids from the class.
We do it because we're in a rut. Getting out of that rut would require a great deal of work and squarely facing many unpleasant truths, among them that many students do not have the aptitude to understand our government well enough to hold them accountable. Some will never get it, no matter how much education you throw at them. We have a strong egalitarian streak in this nation and the notion of a natural aristocracy sets many teeth on edge. Nevertheless, it exists, and we would be better served by focusing squarely on those with the talent than in wasting our time getting uninterested and incapable students to squeak by a test that has no bearing on long term civic literacy. I mean no disrespect to those who do not have the mental aptitude to govern as voters; the theory of multiple intelligences is one I happen to agree with. Those with the ability to become mechanics should have that ability improved and polished rather than ignored while becoming frustrated as their intelligence is measured by some other standard. But just as I don't want somebody who does not understand mechanics (like myself) working on my car, so I don't want those without understanding of government working on that, either.
I don't know if we'll ever be ready for that as a nation. Until we do, though, we will continue to fail to develop potential minds by wasting resources on those without the potential. The first step will be removing these damn state tests and the best way of removing them is to prove how worthless they are. Some institute or college should be looking into this. If the History Regents are so important for students to pass that their futures can be ruined without satisfactory performance, then the test itself should be tested to see if the state standards are being met by voting age citizens who successfully completed New York's curriculum. If there's no link between passing the tests and being informed (even about the exact same material), then the test serves no purpose whatsoever.
Let's test the test.