By Richard Moore
Posted on Jul. 12, 2015
Richard T. Moore is a former state legislator who has been a leader in civic education and serves on the Board of the National Center for Learning and Civic Engagement and the Massachusetts Center for Civic Education. He is a past President of the National Conference of State Legislatures.
America just celebrated its birth as a nation with fireworks, parades, cookouts, and other expressions of appreciation for democracy and our inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Some of us pause on such holidays to remember the valor and sacrifice of those who fought and died to maintain those rights or those whose courage obtained landmark court cases to interpret those rights in ways that expanded their definition to cover more of us.
A healthy democracy can only continue to exist through the informed and active participation of its citizens. If we are going to be able to continue having reasons to celebrate our independence, even to preserve that very independence, more citizens must understand and actively engage in the process. To always be the “land of the free,” it will take more than bravery in battle. It takes informed citizens with the desire to act in ways that preserve and extend our freedom.
Gaining civic knowledge and skills doesn’t just happen. People must be taught – how their government and the political system work as well as their rights, role, and responsibilities. Since the earliest days of our republic, schools have had the twin missions of educating students for the workplace and for active and informed citizenship; the latter mission is the civic mission of our schools.
Massachusetts-born Horace Mann, “the father of public education,” fought to establish the right of every child to an education, not simply to help us prepare for a career and a place in the workforce, but to understand that every citizen must ensure that our government remains “of the people, by the people, and for the people” – ALL people! It’s not enough to learn reading, writing, and arithmetic, as those subjects won’t teach us how we govern ourselves in ways that allow a majority to decide important issues of the day while respecting the rights of those who disagree.
The 2014 National Assessment of Educational Progress on Civics, found only 23% of eighth grade students in the sample demonstrated a proficient or better understanding of this vital area! This lack of basic civic knowledge imperils our democracy by effectively disempowering its citizens. With the decline in civic education over the past decades, it is no surprise that citizens are becoming cynical and failing to vote, read newspapers, and engage in their communities.
However, Massachusetts is taking important steps to correct the existing lack of civic knowledge and skill. Under the leadership of Dr. Richard Freeland, Commissioner of Higher Education, the public higher education institutions in the Commonwealth are focused on producing the best-educated citizenry and workforce in the nation. Massachusetts is the first state in the country to challenge the public higher education system to provide students with the knowledge, skills and dispositions to be active, informed citizens.
Additionally, led by former Millbury Superintendent of Schools Dave Roach, a Sutton resident who serves as Vice Chairman of the Board of Education, the public schools now have a plan to give students the knowledge and skills needed to preserve and enhance our democratic values and practices. It includes: 1) include civics in the definition of college and career readiness, 2) establish regional advisory councils to recommend improvements to civic learning, 3) convene an annual conference to identify promising practices in civic learning across all disciplines, 4) revise the 2003 History and Social Science Curriculum Framework to enhance the effectiveness of civics instruction, 5) establish funding to support district adoption of six promising practices in civic learning and to support professional development in these areas, and 6) a strategy to assess each school and district’s effectiveness in delivering sound civic instruction to ensure every student graduates from high school prepared for active citizenship.
It will require the leadership and support of Gov. Charlie Baker and the Legislature over the next few years, and the continued professional commitment of school committees, administrators and teachers if we are to adequately prepare the next generation for their roles as active, engaged citizens who have the knowledge and skills to govern themselves and their communities. We must all follow in the footsteps of those courageous founders who signed the Declaration of Independence mutually pledging, once again, to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor if we are to preserve the freedom envisioned in that famous document that has been sustained by our veterans and other patriots for nearly 240 years.