Time for America to Stop Flunking Civics Ed (Op-Ed by ABA President Stephen Zack)

WASHINGTON, D.C., April 29, 2011 —The end of the school year is coming, but grades are already in for the state of American civics education. And it’s not good news.  A recent report from the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation on state history standards says bluntly that, a “majority of states’ standards are mediocre-to-awful.” The average grade across all states is barely a D. In 28 states — a majority — the history standards earn Ds or below. Eighteen earn Fs.

These failing grades for state systems reflect the sad state of Americans’ knowledge of their own country’s government.  A 2005 ABA-commissioned Harris Poll found many Americans struggling to name the three branches of government — in fact, more than a fifth thought the three branches were “Democrat,” “Republican” and “Independent.” Overall, a mere 20 percent of those polled by Harris showed a strong grasp of basic American government and civics.  A recent Newsweek cover story polled Americans using basic questions found on the U.S. Citizenship test, and many failed. The magazine’s own analysis was that “the country’s future is imperiled by our ignorance.”

Basic American values are in danger when we lose an understanding of our history. A government cannot survive if it is not understood and embraced by its people.

This lack of knowledge is unacceptable, especially because it’s a solvable problem. Currently, fewer than half of all states test students on their knowledge of civics or government. Civics needs to be counted as another basic, like reading and mathematics. If your state doesn’t yet require civics, push your legislature to change that. The C — for civics — is just as crucial to our future as a nation as are the three Rs.

At the national level, the Department of Education can help schools re-embrace civics classes by fostering a competitive grant funding program for civic education in elementary, middle and high schools that require civics classes.

Let’s also talk about our own responsibilities. We have a special role to play in protecting American constitutional democracy. Reread the Constitution and Bill of Rights, with an eye to founding principles like: religious freedom, presumption of innocence, the right to a fair trial and separation of powers.  Pick up a book or watch a documentary film on John Adams, whose legacy is highlighted in this year’s Law Day theme. Adams’ decision to defend British soldiers accused in the Boston Massacre is a vivid reminder of what courage looks like and what makes America special. Contribute an hour or two to lead a school civics class or discussion. Check out the ABA Law Day website for more ideas.

We are all busy, but preserving the rule of law in our own country is fundamental to who we are and what we believe. Make a little time to celebrate Law Day and protect everything for which our nation stands.

Learn More About:  Law DayZack, Stephen N.