(AP) - Apparently the truths in the Declaration of Independence
aren't so self-evident.
When Rep. Roger Wicker asked high school seniors in his
Mississippi district to name some unalienable rights, he got
silence. So the Republican congressman gave the advanced-placement
history students some help.
"Among these are life," Wicker said, "and...."
"Death?" one student said. So much for liberty and the pursuit of
"It's not so much that they don't know the rote phrases and
facts," said Wicker, the sponsor of a House bill to improve civics
instruction. "It just demonstrates a real gap in the education of
The problem is on the minds of social studies teachers here at
the National Education Association conference, where an original
copy of the Declaration of Independence is on display. The classroom
challenge is not only to make government and history interesting,
but to keep students from becoming alarmingly disengaged.
"If our kids walk out of our school systems without an
understanding of democracy, democracy will cease," said Dakota
Draper, an eighth-grade history teacher in North Dakota. "That's a
The nation's civics struggle has even become a late-night staple
for Jay Leno, who scores laughs showing how people offer ridiculous
answers to simple questions.
But educators don't think it's funny. In daily life, it's a lack
of understanding about government that prompts people to call
Congress when they want the dog catcher, or to complain to a local
council member about a federal tax change. Over time, it can add up
to disenfranchised and apathetic citizens.
So teachers try to find a way to make history contemporary, to
make a civics lesson out of a struggle students care about. Like
fighting for a skateboard park or the right to wear hats in school.
In short: any lesson they'll take with them.
"I always tell my students: If I see you in the grocery store
five years from now, I will not measure my success on can you tell
me Hamilton's financial plan, but can you tell me if you voted,"
Meredith Elliott, an American studies teacher in Utah, said during a
round-table discussion at the NEA convention. "If you answer yes,
then I've succeeded as a teacher."
Beth Ludeman, a government and history teacher in Wisconsin,
said: "I'm much less concerned about a test at any given point as I
am making sure the kids I work with have the opportunity to extend
those skills through their lifetime. And I've seen them do some
pretty phenomenal things with very limited resources."
Still, scores on the nation's benchmark tests might astound the
About one third of students in fourth, eighth and 12th grade
could not even show a basic understanding of civics at their grade
level, according to the last National Assessment of Educational
Progress on the subject in 1998.
The same was true for fourth-graders and eighth-graders in U.S.
history in 2001; high school seniors fared even worse, with nearly
six in 10 below "basic," meaning they lack even partial mastery of
- Almost three out of four fourth-graders could not name which
part of government passes laws. Most students thought it was the
president. (It's Congress.)
- About three out of four fourth-graders knew that July 4
celebrates the Declaration of Independence. But one in four thought
it marked the end of the Civil War, the arrival of the Pilgrims or
the start of the woman's right to vote.
- More than half of 12th-graders, asked to pick a U.S. ally in
World War II from a list of countries, thought the answer was Italy,
Germany or Japan. (The correct answer was the Soviet Union.)
The sobering results have prompted calls for action.
President Bush launched a national effort last year to improve
civics education, pointing to embarrassing student stumbles over the
Pledge of Allegiance and the Gettysburg Address. The Senate has
passed a bill to improve civics training for teachers and students,
the same idea Wicker is pushing in the House.
Meanwhile, state lawmakers are showing more interest in beefing
up a civics curriculum. Such courses typically are offered too
infrequently in schools and aren't comprehensive, said Charles
Quigley, executive director of the nonprofit Center for Civic
"We tend to focus on the problem, and the problem is fairly
extensive," Quigley said. "But we have to recognize there are a lot
of people doing very good things in civics and government.
Unfortunately, there aren't enough of them."
The key is to incorporate civics lessons in courses throughout
the grades, said Cathy Atkinson, a high school social studies
teacher in Wisconsin. One idea of hers: ensure student councils are
true governments, not social clubs.
"If we could involve the kids more in the decision-making at the
school, where they would see immediate impact and the ability to
influence, that would put more of the message in them: They can
actually do something," she said.
On the Net:
National Assessment of Educational Progress:
Center for Civic Education: http://www.civiced.org