Civics Education in Pennsylvania

On Wednesday, February 29, the Pennsylvania State School Board held the first of three public hearings on the governor’s proposal to make changes to the Keystone exams, part of the state’s graduation requirements, including the elimination of the Civics and Government Keystone. Freedoms Foundation testified at the hearing in the person of Vice President of Education Jason Raia. Below is his testimony.

Good morning. My name is Jason Raia; I am Vice President of Education at Freedoms Foundation at Valley Forge, a not-for-profit educational institution that, since 1949, has recognized good citizenship and educated students and teachers—both locally and nationally—in American history, the Founding documents, and civic engagement. I also am a member of the Pennsylvania Council for the Social Studies Board of Directors and serve as the State Coordinator for We the People and Project Citizen. Today I am here to represent Freedoms Foundation and to specifically address the Civics and Government Keystone Exam.

Justice Sandra Day O’Connor has made it clear why we need schools to be at the forefront of educating young citizens. “The better educated our citizens are,” she reminds us,
“the better equipped they will be to preserve the system of government we have. And we have to start with the education of our nation’s young people. Knowledge about our government is not handed down through the gene pool. Every generation has to learn it, and we have some work to do.”
Our democratic republic only works when its citizens understand concepts such as separation of powers, federalism, individual rights, and the role of government, coupled with a familiarity with American history and free enterprise economics.

Students who study civics and government demonstrate not only increased civic knowledge, but they exhibit increased participation as well. A 2010 Harvard study indicated that students who take just a single year of civic education courses are 3 – 6 % more likely to vote than students who do not.

An educated and engaged citizenry is also a bulwark against the weaknesses of democracy. Informed citizens help make elected officials more accountable when they ask challenging questions, and public discourse benefits when citizens are conversant in the issues of the day.

Students who are educated to be responsible citizens tend to be better informed and thoughtful regarding community issues, know how to obtain information, and can think critically. They are known to participate actively in service to their community, and they are politically engaged—solving problems with their neighbors, petitioning and advocating in order to influence public policy. They display moral and civic virtues, striking a balance between self-interest and the common good while recognizing the importance
of the rule of law.

As a nation, we are not doing enough to educate our citizens, to give them the skills and knowledge, and more importantly the desire, to be active participants in our democracy. The results of several studies regarding civic knowledge, of both students and adults, are staggering:

Only one-third of Americans could name all three branches of government; one-third couldn't name any.
Just under half of Americans (47%) knew that a 5-4 decision by the Supreme Court carries the same legal weight as a 9-0 ruling.
Almost a third mistakenly believed that a U.S. Supreme Court ruling could be appealed.

In a nationwide study of basic civic knowledge, researchers defined competency as the ability to correctly answer three-quarters of questions on subject-based tests: Only 5% of Americans were competent in economics; only 11% in domestic issues; only 14% in foreign affairs; only 10% in geography; and only 25% in history.

Civic education has a crucial role to play in poor and minority communities as well. Unless we can engage these young people in meaningful ways, we run the risk of further disenfranchisement and a significant reversal from the Civil Rights gains of the last four decades.

African-American and Hispanic students are twice as likely as their White counterparts to score below proficient on national civics assessments. A similar civic knowledge gap exists between America’s wealthiest and poorest students.
Eligible minorities vote at about two-thirds the rate of their White counterparts. This, quite simply, is not good enough.

Studies tell only part of the story. Last week I spoke with a Professor of Political Science at a top tier university here in Pennsylvania. The recent decline in civic knowledge has made it necessary for this professor to run a five week remedial workshop to provide his students, all political science majors, with a core level of knowledge. As he said, his students’ only reference point for LBJ is Lebron James, so now he uses the high school level We the People book to bring these political science majors to a basic civic knowledge with which previous generations of students arrived.

The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania is to be commended for including civics and government in the state standards, but for this standard to be seen as a core standard—a standard with equal status to math, reading, and science—it must be assessed in the same way at the state level.

In Pennsylvania where state assessments will center on the Keystone Exams, to drop the Civics and Government Keystone Examination for students will send a strong message to school districts. It says that civics and government is not important enough to assess, and thus it will be relegated to the status of a second class standard—only to be offered if time permits.

Whatever one thinks about the efficacy of standardized testing as a form of state assessment, it is hard to deny that testing ultimately determines curriculum. The results of forty-nine different qualitative studies on high stakes testing, as analyzed in the periodical Educational Researcher in 2007, indicate that testing often has the effect of narrowing curricula: “A more detailed analysis finds that the narrowing of curricular content was strongest among participants in the studies that focused on secondary education, with the most narrowing found in studies of social studies and language arts classrooms.”

This is particularly true for those areas that are not assessed at the state level. When there is a state assessment regime in place, subjects that are not assessed have been cut entirely from school curricula or less time is devoted to those subjects in order to provide more time for the subjects that are to be assessed.

Should the Commonwealth defund the Civics and Government Keystone Examination, as proposed by Governor Corbet’s budget, there is a serious risk of school districts interpreting this lack of state assessment as a negative indicator regarding civic education and as tacit permission to devote more time to other subjects that continue to be assessed by the Keystone Exams.

Though some will argue that end-of-year assessment testing is not appropriate for a variety of reasons, in this particular case, to drop the Civics and Government Keystone Examination, and keep the others in place, will simply weaken civics education at a time when we need more and not less citizenship training.

In the state where our country’s Founding Documents were written and debated, the state where our democratic republic took shape, Pennsylvania is perfectly situated to lead on civic education. We must make it a priority for all students to receive a solid grounding in the civic knowledge and skills that will help them to be engaged citizens—aware of their rights and responsibilities, contributing to the common good, and helping to find solutions to tomorrow’s challenges.

Pennsylvania teachers are ready, willing, and eager to take up their role in forming young citizens, but they need your help and support. Eliminating the Civics and Government Keystone Examination is a mistake that will imperil not only civics education but, not to be overly dramatic, the republic itself.


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