Columnist Solomon Goldstein-Rose: Civic education must be consistent

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Most of you probably took a class during high school called civics or “government.

Like most students of my generation, I did not.

For all our focus on the importance of 21st-century subjects, particularly STEM education and getting our students more advanced in math — which, as an engineer, I agree is important — our public school system has let some core life skills fall away from required curricula in the last few decades, most notably civic education.

Partly this has to do with our increased emphasis on standardized testing, which has led to social studies being pushed out of curricula because it is not tested. Partly this has changed along with general values about what schools should focus on.

The fact remains that a successful American society in the 21st century does not require everyone to use calculus, or even algebra, on a regular basis. But a successful American society very much relies on everyone voting on a regular basis, and in recent years we have seen more and more examples of the polarization, misrepresentation, and gridlock that ensue when most citizens are not represented in elections because they don’t bother to vote.

As long as more extreme voters show up the most regularly, our national political climate will be frustrating. And born out of this frustration, voter turnout is the lowest among the newest generation of voters — mine — than it has ever been for young people in the United States.

This is in part because we no longer focus on teaching young people about government systems and how to be connected with them. In particular, the 2016 presidential election brought to light the lack of connection many people feel with our government systems and the lack of knowledge that exists about how to be educated voters, distinguish fake news from real, and look at more than party designation.

I am part of a bipartisan effort of Massachusetts legislators to bring back civics in our public schools. We are working closely on a bill with the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, which is creating a new social studies framework that includes a civics class in 8th grade. The goal is to build further on its work.

We are proposing that an understanding of the structure of federal, state, and local government systems and news media literacy (the ability to critically interpret news) should be required parts of all Massachusetts students’ education. Our proposal would require the integration of civic education throughout elementary, middle, and high school.

We’ve designed the bill to provide flexibility to teachers and administrators to incorporate the relevant units wherever is appropriate in each school, ensuring that it won’t be more for teachers to fit in between already overfilled curriculum requirements.

The piece I am most excited about is the focus on hands-on civic learning. The core of our proposal is that students would do at least one hands-on, civics-related project or action (such as meeting with a legislator, researching a bill, or running a voter registration drive) during elementary school and another during high school.

This hands-on component is crucial, because it’s the best way to learn. Especially for politics and government, which by nature are participatory, learning about the three branches is not sufficient. To train our rising generations as effective and engaged citizens, we must teach students not only the theory but also the practice of how government systems work and particularly how citizens can be involved.

It is important that we provide a uniform curriculum for all students in Massachusetts, no matter where they live.The teaching of civics is very haphazard right now, varying with a school’s ability to go above and beyond or relying on the initiative of individual teachers.

I’ve gotten to experience bits of this myself through the visits I’ve made to various classes in our elementary schools, and speaking with students about my role in state government or about specific issues. I’ve noticed that some youngsters have a thorough understanding of government institutions, and others at the same grade level in the same district have none at all.

We need to make sure that civic education is present and consistent in every one of our schools, so that our country has the citizens it needs to address challenges, bridge divides and achieve progress for all in the coming decades.

Solomon Goldstein-Rose, of Amherst, is the state representative for the 3rd Hampshire District. He encourages constituents to contact him by email at Solomon.Goldstein-Rose@mahouse.gov or through his website, SolomonGR.com.