Archives for category: Civics

I served on the governing board of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) for seven years. I was appointed by President Clinton. I learned quite a lot about standardized testing during that time. I enjoyed reading test questions and finding a few that had two right answers. Two subjects where I felt confident as a reviewer, in addition to reading, were history and civics.

I was momentarily dismayed, but not surprised, to learn that the NAEP scores in history and civics had declined, as they had in reading and math, after the disruptions and closings caused by the pandemic. This is not surprising, because fewer days of instruction translates into less learning.

So we know for sure that instructional time matters. You can’t learn what you weren’t taught.

But on second thought, I realized that in these days it is almost impossible to test history and civics and get a meaningful result.

Many states, all Republican-dominated, have censored history teaching. The legislatures don’t want students to learn “divisive concepts.” They don’t want anything taught that will make students “uncomfortable.” They don’t want “critical race theory” to be taught. These ideas have been spun out at length with other vague descriptions of what teachers are NOT allowed to teach.

The people who write test questions for NAEP history are not bound by these restrictions. They are most likely writing questions about “divisive concepts” and “uncomfortable” topics. They might even ask questions that legislators might think are tinged or saturated by critical race theory.

Given the number of states that ban the teaching of accurate, factual history, it’s seems to me impossible to expect students to be prepared to take an American history test.

Even more complicated is civics. A good civics exam might ask questions about the importance of the right to vote. It might ask questions written on the assumption that vote suppression and gerrymandering are undemocratic practices that were long ago banned by the courts. Yet courts are now allowing these baleful practices to stand. How can a student understand that a discredited practice is now openly endorsed in various state laws and have not been discredited by the courts?

Civics classes typically teach that one of the great strengths of American democracy is the peaceful transition of power from one President to another. How can they teach that idea when Trump partisans insist that he won the last election and was ousted in a coup? How can teachers explain the election process when Trump says it’s rigged (he said it before the 2016 election as well)? How can students answer questions about elections and the Electoral College when Trumpers believe they were corrupted in 2020?

How can teachers teach civics when almost every GOP leader asserts that the election was stolen?

How can civics be taught when public officials defy public opinion to allow any individual to buy guns without a background check or a permit. Having bought a gun, they may wear it openly in some states and carry it concealed in some other states. Students have been practicing in case an armed killer walks into their school during the day. They need only google to learn that a majority of the public favors gun control of varying kinds. Why, they might ask their teacher, doesn’t the legislature and Congress act to protect the lives of children?

Is it worse to teach lies or to teach the truth?

The Orlando Sentinel reported today that the State Education Department had rejected 35% of the social studies textbooks submitted for review because of leftist content. The DeSantis administration objects to any references to “social justice” or negative references to capitalism.

Leslie Postal of the Sentinel wrote:

Florida rejected 35% of the social studies textbooks publishers hoped to sell to public schools this year and forced others to delete or change passages state leaders disliked, including references to “why some citizens are choosing to ‘Take a Knee’ to protest police brutality” and “new calls for social justice” after the death of George Floyd.

A press release from the Florida Department of Education on Tuesday said 66 of 101 textbooks submitted have been approved, many after making changes the state demanded. On April 6, the department gave approval to only 19 of the books but then worked for the past month to get publishers to update their texts.

The goal was “materials that focus on historical facts and are free from inaccuracies or ideological rhetoric,” said Education Commissioner Manny Diaz in a statement.

The textbooks are for elementary and middle school social studies classes as well as civics, economics, U.S. history and world history courses.

In addition to social justice topics, some of the textbooks initially rejected failed to accurately describe communism and socialism, the department said, and those passages were revamped to emphasize the negatives of both economic systems…

The process became highly political a year ago, however, when the state initially rejected 42 math textbooks, a historic number, and touted the news with a press release that said, “Florida Rejects Publishers’ Attempts to Indoctrinate Students.”

Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration sounded a similar alarm Tuesday.

“The political indoctrination of children through the K-12 public education system is a very real and prolific problem in this country,” tweeted Bryan Griffin, DeSantis’ press secretary. “Just look at some of these examples from textbooks submitted this year to @EducationFL.”

Griffin highlighted a passage from a middle school textbook that described a socialist economy as one that “keeps things nice and even and without unnecessary waste.” The passage went on to say, “These societies may promote greater equality among people while still providing a fully functioning government-supervised economy.”

The department did not indicate what textbook included that passage but shared the new version about “planned economies” that replaced the one about socialist economies. The new passage reads, “Critics say these planned economies have slow development and fewer technological advances” in part because they limit “human incentive. In other words, why do anything if the government is eventually going to do it for you?”

The other examples the department shared included two related to social justice, police brutality and racism. The elementary school textbook that mentioned people taking a knee during the National Anthem as a form of protest was deleted as “not age appropriate,” the department said. So was a passage from a middle school book that discussed “new calls for social justice, including the formation of the Black Lives Matter group and the protests after the killing of Floyd, a Black man, by a white police officer.”

The department also disliked that a middle school textbook about the Holocaust asked, “What social justice issues are included in the Hebrew Bible?” The line was changed to “What are some of the key principles included in the Hebrew Bible?”

The DeSantis’ administration last year claimed the math books contained critical race theory, the idea that racism is embedded in American institutions, and other unacceptable topics such as social emotional learning and culturally responsive learning.

DeSantis and other Republicans argue CRT aims to make white children feel guilty and to teach children to hate the United States and that, while traditionally a graduate school topic, its tenets have seeped into K-12 classrooms. The Legislature last year passed what the governor dubbed his “stop woke” act that outlaws the teaching of the concept in public schools.

Opponents of DeSantis’ efforts argued the real aim was to prevent children from learning about tough topics such as slavery and racial discrimination and said they feared it would lead to a whitewashing of history.

Most of those who reviewed the math textbooks — math teachers and professors — found nothing objectionable in the texts, with only three of about 70 reviewers raising concerns about CRT. Eventually, many of the rejected books were approved after making some changes. The three reviewers who raised questions about the math textbooks were a member of the conservative Moms for Liberty group and two people affiliated with the Hillsdale College, a conservative Christian school in Michigan aligned with the DeSantis administration.

The math book rejections stunned school district administrators, who had already made plans to purchase the rejected textbooks — which were part of a longer list first posted to the education department’s website. As they typically do, committees of teachers and curriculum experts reviewed the books before recommending which ones should be purchased and had not found material they found objectionable.

The districts needed to buy new math textbooks last year and new social studies textbooks this year to make sure their instructional materials match with new state standards for those subjects.

Mindful of what happened last year, Orange County Public Schools decided to select both first and second-choice options for new social studies books this year. The Orange County School Board approved its list of recommended books April 25, but the district has not yet made any purchases, which could cost more than $21 million.

The social studies textbooks OCPS selected as its top choice for elementary schools is on the rejected list the education department released Tuesday. The district could go with its second-choice option, which is approved, or wait to see if the other wins approval in the coming weeks.

Tim Slekar, Director of the Educator Preparation Program at Muskingum University in Ohio comments here on the recent report that NAEP scores in history and civics dropped during the pandemic. The decline should surprise no one since neither subject has mattered for the past two decades. Far more worrisome, he says, is the erosion of democracy. How do you prepare students to participate in a society where voter suppression and gerrymandering are widespread and are approved by the courts? Where members of the Supreme Court see no harm in accepting valuable gifts from billionaires? Where one of the two national political parties insists the last presidential election was stolen without any evidence? Where nominees for the highest Court testify under oath that they believe in stare decisis, then promptly overturn Roe v. Wade? Where killers stalk schools and public places because of the power of the gun lobby? Where honest teaching about political events and history is considered divisive and may be criminalized?

Slekar writes:

“In the 1930s, George Counts dared the schools to “build a new social order” comprised of an active, critical citizenry, challenging industrial society’s inequities through boldly democratic education.  In 2016, a supposedly educated population of United States citizens elected Donald Trump as its next president, ushering in what surely will be a new social order.  For decades preceding that election, social studies educators, researchers, and leaders have rejected powerful and critical social studies learning efforts in favor of superficial standards-setting and accountability talk….My guess is that Counts would not be very happy with Trump’s construct of a new social order, and my point is that standards—particularly in social studies—have been useless as instruments intended to affect how the social order Counts envisioned might be built through public education.”


I wrote the above in 2018. 40 years of devotion towards the erosion of the civic mission of history and the social studies had resulted in the election of a narcissistic reality tv show host to the presidency of the United States. There were no headlines about the dismal state of teaching and learning American history and civics in 2018. The most obscene—in-your-face evidence of civic failure was ignored.

And now America is faced with a “crisis” because of an insignificant drop in 8th graders’ test scores in US History and American Civics NAEP tests. Really? This is our national concern? Really?

What about the fact that the 8th graders tested spent significantly less time in History class than 8th graders 10 – years ago?

What about the fact that 8th graders 10 years ago spent significantly less time in History class than 8th graders 20 years ago?

Thank you Race to the Top (Obama) and No Child Left Behind (Bush).

What about the current reality of state legislatures taking the insignificant time devoted to the teaching of History and whitewashing the content that can be taught through the mandated erasure of painful truths that make some “uncomfortable?”

What about legislating penalties on teachers that involve students in that horrible civic responsibility of engaging with their elected officials?

The evidence is clear. We have a crisis of democracy. We have a morality crisis that has been legislated since 1983. The mission of public schools was purposely killed and now we have a society of grievance snowflakes that openly believe intolerance, bullying, and racism are constitutional rights.

Test score drop? Fake news!

Civics education in Texas has been turned into textbook study by a 2021 law that bans student interaction with elected officials. Apparently, the Republicans who control state government want to keep students in the dark about getting involved in civic action. Participation is a feature of civic education, but it’s illegal in the Lone Star State.

The Guardian reports:

The defining experience of Jordan Zamora-Garcia’s high school career – a hands-on group project in civics class that spurred a new city ordinance in his Austin suburb – would now violate Texas law.

Since Texas lawmakers in 2021 passed a ban on lessons teaching that any one group is “inherently racist, sexist or oppressive”, a little-noticed provision of that legislation has triggered a massive fallout for civics education across the state.Being the only one leaves a mark: a Black mother on the long shadow of school segregation

Tucked into page 8 is a stipulation outlawing all assignments involving “direct communication” between students and their federal, state or local officials – short-circuiting the training young Texans receive to participate in democracy itself.

Zamora-Garcia’s 2017 project to add student advisers to the city council, and others like it involving research and meetings with elected representatives, would stand in direct violation.Since 2021, 18 states have passed laws restricting teachings on race and gender. But Texas is the only one nationwide to suppress students’ interactions with elected officials in class projects, according to researchers at the free expression advocacy group Pen America.

The Miami Herald reported today on Governor DeSantis’ plans to cleanse higher education in the state. Conservatives are creating “civics” institutes as a vehicle for patriotic indoctrination, not as a means to think critically about how to improve democracy. Censorship, which DeSantis practices, would be condemned in any genuine civics class.

Gov. Ron DeSantis on Tuesday announced a package of major reforms to Florida’s higher education system, including tighter controls on faculty tenure, the establishment of “civics institutes” at three universities and prohibitions on diversity, equity and inclusion programs.

Speaking at a news conference in Bradenton, the governor unveiled a plan that would allow university boards of trustees and presidents to conduct reviews of tenured faculty members “at any time,” in addition to the periodic reviews that now take place. Regarding university presidents in particular, he proposes “reestablishing their authority over the hiring process.”

Currently, according to a flier distributed by the governor’s staff, “faculty committees can tie the hands of university presidents and bind them to only consider a small pool of recommended candidates.”

And under a heading in the flier that reads “Education not indoctrination,” he proposes changes in standards and course content “to ensure higher education is rooted in the values of liberty and western tradition.” His plan would require schools to “prioritize graduating students with degrees that lead to high-wage jobs, not degrees designed to further a political agenda.”

The proposal also would prohibit state schools from “supporting campus activities or programs that promote divisive concepts like DEI and CRT.” The letters refer to diversity, equity and inclusion programs and critical race theory.

In addition, he proposes establishing “world-class civics institutes” at the University of Florida, Florida International University and Florida State University. The institutes, according to the flier, would develop courses and curricula “that can be used to educate the next generation on the values of liberty and constitutionalism.”

The flier included information on the governor’s higher education budget proposals as well. He proposes $100 million for “recruitment and retention of highly qualified faculty at state universities” and $15 million for faculty and student recruitment at New College of Florida, where he recently appointed six conservative members to the board of trustees.

The New College board meets Tuesday for the first time since the appointments.

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John Merrow’s title is sarcastic. Of course he wants you to read banned books, and he is deeply concerned about the large number of eligible voters—especially young people—who don’t bother to vote.

When someone on Twitter posted a list of 25 popular books that Florida Governor Ron DeSantis had supposedly banned from the state’s public schools, people went crazy. The list included Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird,” Alice Walker’s “The Color Purple” and Madeleine L’Engle’s “A Wrinkle in Time.”

Below is a screenshot of the list. How many of these books have you read? Have your children read most of them? What on earth is going on in Florida?

People familiar with DeSantis’s efforts to restrict classroom discussion of controversial topics had no trouble believing that he would try to prevent young people from reading controversial or challenging books. If DeSantis did draw up a list, these books might well be on it.

But the list is a fake, a clever satire.

Many people were fooled, including teacher union President Randi Weingarten and “Star Wars” actor Mark Hamill. Hamill’s screenshot of the list amassed more than 100,000 likes and 24,000 retweets.

(Add my name to the list of those who were taken in.)

Like all good satire, that fake list of banned books is rooted in truth, because book banning is real and growing. Florida school districts have banned around 200 books, according to a report published by PEN America, a nonprofit that tracks book banning in the U.S. Pen America ranks Florida third among US states for banning books, trailing only Texas and Pennsylvania.

We are in the midst of a pandemic of book banning, so it’s hard to imagine any title that would never be banned by some zealous or timid school board or ignorant legislator.

One way to stop this outbreak of censorship is to get active, vote, attend school board meetings, run for school board. Passivity and complaining is a losing strategy.

Time to turn back the rising tide of incipient fascism.

Ron DeSantis has ranted about “indoctrination” in the classroom, meaning instruction about the brutal facts of racism in American history. He promoted legislation to stop anti-racist teaching, which he calls WOKE.

Florida teachers are now subject to state-sponsored indoctrination. This is thought control.

Several South Florida high school educators are alarmed that a new state civics initiative designed to prepare students to be “virtuous citizens” is infused with a Christian and conservative ideology after a three-day training session in Broward County last week. Teachers who spoke to the Herald/Times said they don’t object to the state’s new standards for civics, but they do take issue with how the state wants them to be taught. “It was very skewed,” said Barbara Segal, a 12th-grade government teacher at Fort Lauderdale High School. “There was a very strong Christian fundamentalist way toward analyzing different quotes and different documents. That was concerning.”

The civics training, which is part of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ Civics Literacy Excellence Initiative, underscores the tension that has been building around education and how classrooms have become battlegrounds for politically-contentious issues.

In Florida, DeSantis and the Republican-led Legislature have pushed policies that limit what schools can teach about race, gender identity and certain aspects of history. Those dynamics came into full view last week, when trainers told Broward teachers the nation’s founders did not desire a strict separation of state and church, downplayed the role the colonies and later the United States had in the history of slavery in America, and pushed a judicial theory, favored by legal conservatives like DeSantis, that requires people to interpret the Constitution as the framers intended it, not as a living, evolving document, according to three educators who attended the training.

“It is disturbing, really, that through these workshops and through legislation, there is this attempt to both censor and to drive or propagandize particular points of view,” said Richard Judd, 50, a Nova High School social studies teacher with 22 years of experience who attended the state-led training session last week.

A review of more than 200 pages of the state’s presentations show the founding fathers’ intent and the “misconceptions” about their thinking were a main theme of the training. One slide underscored that the “Founders expected religion to be promoted because they believed it to be essential to civic virtue.”

Without virtue, another slide noted, citizens become “licentious” and become subject to tyranny. Another slide highlights three U.S. Supreme Court cases to show when the “Founders’ original intent began to change.”

That included the 1962 landmark case that found school-sponsored prayer violated the establishment clause of the First Amendment, which Judd said trainers viewed as unjust. At one point, the trainers equated it to the 1892 U.S. Supreme Court decision that upheld the constitutionality of racial segregation under the “separate but equal” doctrine. [Editor’s note: I think they mean Plessy v. Ferguson of 1896, which upheld separate-but-equal segregation by race.]

“Ending school prayer was compared to upholding segregation,” Judd said. In other words, he said, trainers called both those rulings unjust. On slavery, the state said that two-thirds of the founding fathers were slave owners but emphasized that “even those that held slaves did not defend the institution.”

This is one of the slides shown during the Florida Department of Education’s training series for civics and government teachers. DeSantis’ administration has spent nearly $6 million to train public school teachers across the state on how to teach civics as part of the governor’s initiative. The first training sessions were June 20-22, at Broward College in Davie. Teachers are in Hillsborough County are training this week. The civics training is the latest effort in a long line of education policies that aims to fight what DeSantis and conservative education reformers say are “woke ideologies” in public schools. It also provides a snapshot of how national groups, including Hillsdale College, a politically influential private Christian college in southern Michigan, are working with the DeSantis administration to reshape education in the state.

The goal is to put a greater emphasis on civics than on socially divisive issues such as race and gender identity, which DeSantis has said is an effort to reorient teaching away from “indoctrination and back towards education.” But to several educators who went through the state’s training it felt like a broader effort to impose a conservative view on historical events. “We are constantly under attack, and there is this false narrative that we’re indoctrinating children, but that is nothing compared to what the state just threw in new civic educators’ faces. That’s straight-up indoctrination,” said Segal, a 46-year-old teacher with 19 years of experience.

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We live in an age when politicians, advertisers, and others develop and distribute fake news to sell their wares. It’s more important than ever for people to have the digital skills to check the accuracy of what they see online.

A recent study conducted by Stanford University researchers reached a sobering conclusion. Most students don’t know how to fact-check what they see online.

The University published the following survey of the results:

A new national study by Stanford researchers showing a woeful inability by high schoolers to detect fake news on the internet suggests an urgent need for schools to integrate new tools and curriculum into classrooms that boost students’ digital skills, the study’s authors say.

In the largest such study undertaken, researchers from Stanford Graduate School of Education devised a challenge for 3,446 American high school students who had been carefully selected to match the demographic makeup of the American population.

Rather than conduct a standard survey, in which students would self-report their media habits and skills, the research team came up with a series of live internet tasks. The results, published online this week in the journal Educational Researcher, highlight what the researchers say is an urgent need to better prepare students for the realities of a world filled with a continual flow of misleading information.

“This study is not an indictment of the students—they did what they’ve been taught to do—but the study should be troubling to anyone who cares about the future of democracy,” said Joel Breakstone, director of the Stanford History Education Group and the study’s lead author. “We have to train students to be better consumers of information.”

In one of the study’s tasks, students were shown an anonymously produced video that circulated on Facebook in 2016 claiming to show ballot stuffing during Democratic primary elections and asked to use Internet-enabled computers to determine whether it provided strong evidence of voter fraud.

Students tried, mostly in vain, to discover the truth. Despite access to the internet’s powerful search capabilities, just three of the study’s more than three thousand participants — less than one tenth of one percent – were able to divine the true source of the video, which actually featured footage of voter fraud in Russia.

In another task, students were asked to vet a website proclaiming to “disseminate factual reports” about climate change. Ninety-six percent failed to discover the publisher’s ties to the fossil fuel industry. Overall, the researchers found that students were too easily swayed by relatively weak indicators of credibility—a website’s appearance, the characteristics of its domain name, the site’s “About” page, or the sheer quantity of information available on a website, irrespective of the quality of that information.

“Regardless of the test, most students fared poorly, and some fared more poorly than others,” said Sam Wineburg, the Margaret Jacks Professor of Education at Stanford, who co-authored the paper. “It presents a concerning picture of American students’ ability to figure out who produced a given story, what their biases might have been, and whether the information is reliable. More troubling still is how easy it is for agents of disinformation to produce misleading—or even deliberately false stories—that carry the sheen of truth. Coupled with the instantaneous and global reach of today’s social media, it does not bode well for the future of information integrity.”

The researchers suggested potential remedies that might right the ship, including teaching students strategies based on what professional fact checkers do–strategies that have been shown in experiments to improve students’ digital savvy.

“It would be great if all students knew how to take advantage of the full web and had complete command of advanced skills like Boolean operators, but that’s a lot to ask,” Wineburg said. “If you want to teach kids to drive a car, first you have to teach them to stop at red lights and not cross double lines, before learning how a catalytic converter works. As the study shows, a lot of these kids aren’t stopping at red yet.”

It is possible to develop students’ digital literacy skills, Wineburg said. Given the risk to our democracy, it will be critical for schools to integrate these skills into all subjects, from history to math, and at every grade level.

“The kids can do it,” Wineburg said. “We must help get them there.”

The study was funded by The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

Dana Milbank believes that Republicans are terrified of restoring civics education for fear that the younger generation will learn how our government is supposed to work.

He wrote in the Washington Post:

Pretty much everything the Trump-occupied Republican Party has been doing these days violates the basic tenets of democracy that American schoolchildren are taught.

But the Trumpy right has come up with an elegant remedy to relieve the cognitive dissonance: They want to cancel civics education. If the voters don’t know how the government is supposed to function, they’ll be none the wiser when it malfunctions — which has been pretty much all the time.

First, Republican officials indulged President Donald Trump’s four years of sabotaging the rule of law and democratic norms.

Then, a majority of Republican lawmakers voted to overturn the election results and President Biden’s victory.

Then, they voted to excuse Trump’s role in fomenting a violent insurrection against Congress.
Then, some moved to whitewash the insurrection itself, pretending the deadly attack was just a “normal tourist visit.”

And, finally, they purged the No. 3 House Republican, Liz Cheney of Wyoming, for refusing to embrace Trump’s “big lie” about a stolen election.

How do they get away with such fundamental violations of America’s democratic traditions? Well, maybe it’s because only a quarter of U.S. students are proficient in civics, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress. And apparently, the right wants to keep it that way.

A bipartisan bill in Congress sponsored by Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas and Republican Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma (Disclosure: My wife’s stepmother, Rep. Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut, is one of the bill’s Democratic sponsors), would authorize $1 billion a year in grants to pay for more civics and history programs that teach children “to understand American Government and engage in American democratic practices as citizens and residents of the United States.” It’s as American — and as anodyne — as apple pie.

But, as The Post’s Laura Meckler reported over the weekend, “Conservative media and activists are pelting the Republicans who support the bill to abandon it. They call the grant program a ‘Trojan horse’ that would allow the Biden administration to push a liberal agenda.”

Conservative writer Stanley Kurtz told Breitbart News that the bill would promote a “woke education” and a “Marxist-based philosophy” in which “teachers are forced to indoctrinate students with ideas like ‘systemic racism,’ ‘white privilege,’ and ‘gender fluidity.’ ” Kurtz wrote in National Review that the civics bill will promote a curriculum “built around radical Critical Race Theory.”

In reality, the civics bill does no such thing. The “Civics Secures Democracy Act” specifically states that it doesn’t “authorize the Secretary of Education to prescribe a civics and history curriculum.” That’s up to state and local leaders.

But the plain text of the bill didn’t stop Kurtz and his allies from spinning a conspiracy theory, based on their objections to another, unrelated grant program. (For that program, the Biden administration cited the New York Times’s “1619 Project” in touting the importance of teaching about the consequences of slavery.) So, now, it’s a safe bet that congressional Republicans will in large numbers oppose a bill promoting nothing more nefarious than civil discourse, voting, jury duty and volunteering.

Perhaps the Republicans would look more favorably on a civics bill if it mandated a curriculum that better reflects the way they’ve been governing. To assist them, I’ve combed through the civics questions for fourth-graders asked by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, and substituted answers more consistent with recent events than the outdated, “correct” answers.

Which event is Rosa Parks associated with?
Strike “A boycott of the buses in Montgomery, Alabama,” and substitute: “An ANTIFA plot to destroy the suburbs.”

July 4 is a national holiday that celebrates the day when . . .
Strike “the American colonies declared their independence” and insert “the Continental Army took over the airports.”

The purpose of the United Nations is to . . .
Strike “promote international peace and security” and insert “lead a takeover of the U.S. government by globalist pedophiles.”

Usually United States citizens elect a President by . . .
Strike “secret ballot on Election Day” and insert “Storming the Capitol and bludgeoning police officers with flagpoles.”

Which of the following ideas is in the summary of the Declaration of Independence?
Strike “People in the United States should have some control over the government” and insert “People in the United States should not wear face masks.”

What are the two main political parties in the United States?
Strike “Democrats and Republicans” and insert “Republicans and Far-Left Radical Socialists who are Against God.”

Who decides whether a law follows the Constitution or not?
Strike “The Supreme Court” and insert “Rudy Giuliani.”

Who is currently the President of the United States?
Strike “Joseph Biden” and insert “Donald Trump.”

Two decades ago, George W. Bush spoke the immortal words, “Rarely is the question asked: Is our children learning?” The survival of Trump’s Republicans depends on the answer being a resounding “no.”

Joel Westheimer is American-born but lives in Canada, where he teaches Democracy and Education at the University of Ottawa.

He writes:

The attack on the U.S. Capitol building was shocking but not a surprise to those studying extremism in the United States where support for democracy has been plummeting.

In 1995, just one in sixteen Americans agreed with the idea that it would be “good” or “very good” for the military to run the country rather than elected democratic officials. Today, one in five agree.

Nearly one in four Americans think democracy is a bad way to run the country and would like to live under a political system in which a strong leader could make decisions without being bothered with elections or interference from congress. But as someone who studies the role of schools in democratic societies, what keep me up at night is the finding that almost half of millennials share that view.

Democracy, it seems, is not self-winding.

Public schools in the United States were founded on the idea that democracy could not work if citizens were not taught the principles and habits of democratic life. But in the same period that support for democracy has declined, that founding purpose of schooling has shifted—you could say that it was hijacked—by the standards and accountability movements of the last two decades.

Most school districts now emphasize preparing students for standardized assessments in math and literacy at the same time that they shortchange the social studies, history, and even the most basic forms of citizenship education.

The obsession with standardized testing in only two subject areas and the relentless pressure on schools to cover more and more material means lessons that develop the attitudes, skills, knowledge, and habits necessary for a democratic society to flourish are crowded out.

Finnish educator Pasi Sahlberg calls this kind of school reform GERM (for Global Education Reform Movement). It’s like an epidemic, he says, that “spreads and infects education systems through a virus. It travels with pundits, media and politicians. Education systems borrow policies from others and get infected. As a consequence, schools get ill, teachers don’t feel well, and kids learn less.”

When the testing tail wags the school reform dog, democracy loses. Why would we expect adults, even senators or members of Parliament, to be able to intelligently and compassionately discuss different viewpoints in the best interests of their constituents if schoolchildren never or rarely get that opportunity in school? When policymakers focus obsessively on learning metrics, teachers are forced to reduce their teaching to endless lists of facts and skills, unmoored from their social meaning.

Like most educators, I have nothing against facts. But, democratic societies require more than citizens who are fact-full. They require citizens who can think and act in ethically thoughtful ways.

A well-functioning democracy needs schools that teach students to recognize ambiguity and conflict in factual content, to see human conditions and aspirations as complex and contested, and to embrace debate and deliberation as a cornerstone of democratic societies.

More than 100 years ago, the philosopher John Dewey wrote that democracy must “be born anew every generation, and education is its midwife.”

We will all be glad when the global Covid-19 pandemic is brought under control. But there is another virus that threatens the United States that is fed by a toxic combination of disinformation and conspiracy theories. Luckily, the vaccine is already available: education. But public schools need to be allowed and encouraged to reclaim their democratic mission. We can no longer take democracy for granted.

Joel Westheimer is University Research Chair in Democracy & Education at the University of Ottawa and author of What Kind of Citizen? Educating Our Children for the Common Good.  |  |  (613) 265-8077

References for assertions and quotations:

John Dewey, Plan of organization of the university primary school, 1895. In J. Boydston, Early works of John Dewey 1882-1898, vol. 5. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1972. Pages 223-243.

World Values Survey: Round Seven – Country-Pooled Datafile.

Pasi Sahlberg, How GERM is infecting schools around the world. The Washington Post. [blog: The Answer Sheet web log by Valerie Strauss], June 29, 2012.