The 66-year-old Elk Grove Village trustee, a product of the Chicago public school system, recalls studying a civics textbook in the eighth grade. In high school, he had a year each of American and European history and a semester of government.
“It was better then than it is now. We’ve had a real decline, I think,” laments Feichter, who is part of an organized effort to enhance civic education in Illinois — with or without Springfield’s help. “I had good teachers who got me interested in it. That’s where I got that first spark that got me involved in doing what I do now.”
Civics hasn’t exactly gone away, but advocates for the field say it has been put on the back burner both nationally and here in Illinois. They blame pervasive American apathy and the pressures of standardized testing under the federal No Child Left Behind law of 2002, which tends to skew a state’s educational priorities — and classroom time — toward reading and math.
“I’m not downplaying the need for us to be competitive in these other areas, but I do think there’s a need to educate the whole child,” says Shawn Healy, resident scholar and director of professional development for the Robert R. McCormick Foundation. “People are going to have different careers. Half or so of kids are going to go to college. But we’re all going to be citizens.”
Statistical snapshots derived from the testing of 26,000 American students in public and private schools do not offer an encouraging picture.
When fourth-, eighth- and 12th-graders were tested on civics in 2010, only the fourth-graders achieved a higher average score compared with results from similar exams in 1998 and 2006, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress. The average fourth-grade score was 157 on a scale of 300, compared with fourth-grade averages of 150 and 154 in the NAEP results from 1998 and 2006, respectively.
At the same time, the civics knowledge base of eighth-graders and high school seniors appears to have stagnated. Students in those two grade levels had average scores of 151 and 148, respectively — roughly the same average scores in 1998 and 2006 for eighth- and 12th-graders.
The percentage of eighth-graders and high school seniors who performed at or above the “basic” level in civics also stayed the same — 72 percent and 64 percent, respectively — compared with the previous assessments. In another silver lining provided by fourth-graders, 77 percent of those students performed at or above the basic level, a small improvement from the two earlier assessment periods (69 percent in 1998 and 73 percent in 2006).
“It’s a little bit alarming,” says Tonya Miles, a National Assessment Governing Board member who helped unveil the latest civics results in May. “From my viewpoint, I’m trying to look at a long-term trend, a hopeful trend. I’m hoping we’re building a pipeline of students from the fourth grade.”
Students with “advanced” abilities in civics continue to be rare, the 2010 tests indicate. Just 2 percent of fourth-graders, 1 percent of eighth-graders and 4 percent of 12th-graders achieved that comparatively sophisticated level.
Exactly what is good civics education?
The subject should span a student’s entire K-12 education and not just surface in later grades, proponents say. The basics should cover the U.S. Constitution and an explanation of how government works at the federal, state and local levels. But just as important, civics boosters say, are critical-thinking exercises that inspire students to discuss and debate public policies, even controversial ones. The best civics programs, advocates say, also include opportunities for students to participate in hands-on activities that demonstrate good citizenship.
Illinois doesn’t obligate schools to do nearly so much. The state’s education code imposes the requirement that publicly supported schools teach “patriotism” and “principles of representative government” and the U.S. and state constitutions. A student cannot graduate “without passing a satisfactory examination upon such subjects,” the law states.
Critics say the vagueness of the statute allows public schools to roll civics into other classes, such as history or social studies, and to administer weak constitutional exams. At best, observers say, Illinois is a mixed bag, with some districts — typically in the more affluent Chicago suburbs — providing excellent civics education, while other school systems get by with the bare minimum.
“I have to admit, there’s some apathy toward civic education in general at the high school level here. I would say it’s in the culture,” says Marc Kiehna, regional schools superintendent for Monroe and Randolph counties. “We’re hoping through some of the things we’re doing, we can maybe make a dent in that.”
Civics education boosters hold out hope that Illinois lawmakers can be persuaded to raise the bar, as was done in Florida last year. Legislators there voted to require a semester of civics at the middle school level and obligated schools to roll civics into the language arts curriculum at all grade levels. The new law was named after former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, a leading civics advocate who helped launch an interactive educational website, iCivics.org, for young people.
Illinois state Rep. William Davis, a Hazel Crest Democrat, is sympathetic to the goals of civics advocates here. He co-sponsored legislation in 2007 that directed regional superintendents to review the civics curriculum of their local schools, which in turn could have tapped private grants allowing teachers to attend workshops. The measure was signed into law by then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich but never received the state funding that was necessary, supporters say.
Davis predicts any new proposal would hit a similar snag at the Capitol.
“We’ll run into this question of mandate and how to fund it. That will always be there,” he says.
For now, the backers of civics education reforms aren’t waiting on the legislature. They’re taking their message to individual schools and educators.
Feichter, the retired teacher, is Illinois coordinator for the Center for Civic Education, a not-for-profit that offers a line of supplemental teaching material to schools. He first attended one of CCE’s seminars in 1990 and began incorporating its “We the People” texts in his government class at Main South High School in Park Ridge until he retired in 2001.
The Illinois Civic Mission Coalition, part of a national campaign, was launched in 2004 with support from organizations like the McCormick Foundation, the Constitutional Rights Foundation Chicago and the Mikva Challenge. The consortium issued a report in 2009 outlining a “civics blueprint” for high schools that emphasizes hands-on activities and service learning. The coalition also has partnered with schools to audit their civics programs and bring them up to a status known as “Democracy School.” So far, 15 schools from the Chicago region have participated.
“The schools that have partaken in the process so far have been low-hanging fruit. They’re frankly doing a good job already,” says the McCormick Foundation’s Healy, who chairs the coalition. “Our challenge going forward is to build Democracy Schools. It’s not just to recognize schools that are doing a good job. We know there’s a lot of work we need to do on that front.”
Kiehna, the regional superintendent for Monroe and Randolph counties, hopes to generate a similar kind of knowledge-sharing in his sector of the state. He already mentors teachers and students under a CCE program called “Project Citizen.” Over the summer, he worked with the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute to organize an October 26 conference at Southern Illinois University. Downstate teachers and principals who attend will get some low-cost, practical ideas on improving their civics sections.
“Folks in Chicago are very fortunate to have a big bar association and lots of attorneys who get involved with school districts. We don’t have that,” Kiehna says. “We’ve got to figure out what works for us down here. Ignoring it is not acceptable.”
The ongoing discussion about strengthening civics in schools is not just an academic exercise, advocates say.
“What’s at stake is our democracy as we know it,” Feichter says. “We could lose all of the freedoms that we have today. People take them for granted already. And the more they take them for granted and don’t understand them, the greater the chance they’re going to be gone forever.”
Building better citizens isn’t rocket science, civics advocates say
State Rep. William Davis, a Hazel Crest Democrat, says he catches the attention of teens pretty quickly when he asks them a simple question at career days: How would they feel if the minimum driving age was raised to 18?
“I say, ‘Guess who makes that decision?’ And they kind of look at me like, ‘Who makes that decision?’ And I go, ‘Well, I do, as a state elected official,’” Davis says. “I use that to try to show how someone like me can make a decision that impacts them. They’ve got to see the correlation.”
If young people don’t understand how government works, they can’t participate as enlightened citizens when they grow up. But given the rancor in Washington, D.C., and history of government corruption in Illinois, can we really blame students if they don’t want to tune in?
Civics education advocates concede the adults in charge leave something to be desired. But they also insist that young people find public policy fascinating in the right learning environment. And they can even learn a seemingly forgotten skill: how to agree to disagree.
“Some of our elected officials, some of our appointed officials, aren’t civic role models. We need to be, and we need to teach our students to be better,” says Shawn Healy, resident scholar for the Robert R. McCormick Foundation and chairman of the Illinois Civic Mission Coalition. “Schools are the perfect place to be having conversations about controversial issues. We can have substantive conversations, we can disagree vehemently, but the other side’s not the enemy, and ultimately, politics is the art of compromise, and we need to find a way to get there.”
Retired government teacher Patton Feichter says his students found the world of politics — warts and all — fascinating and did not shy away from volatile issues. At a 10-year reunion with some of his high school students, he was pleased to see the graduates were still engaged, even though they had chosen a variety of career paths. “They all had one thing in common: They had this understanding and appreciation and excitement about issues that still stuck with them 10 years later after they graduated high school,” Feichter says. “And that I was so happy about.”
Mike Ramsey is a Chicago-based freelance writer.
Illinois Issues, September 2011