Column: Educators blame decline in civics education on the pressures of standardized testing


About five years ago, K-12 educational leaders across the country came to a disturbing realization:

Civics instruction wasn’t just bad, it was abysmal.

One national study circulated at the time found that only 23% of eighth-graders were proficient or better in civics. According to another report, just 13% of high school seniors had a solid understanding of U.S. history, and less than half saw reason to become involved in state and local issues.

Ignorant, disinterested kids turn into adults who are equally apathetic. A 2016 survey by the Annenberg Public Policy Center, for instance, found that only 26% of Americans can name all three branches of government — a significant decline from previous years.


Many educators have long realized that something needed to be done to course correct, or else we would continue to produce generations of high school graduates who were clueless and cared little about the most basic facts regarding how our government works.

Here in California, where the voter participation rate for 18-to-24-year-olds has consistently fallen well below other age groups, that mission was taken seriously.

In 2013, state Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye established a committee of educators and leaders in law and business, which teamed up with Tom Torlakson, then state superintendent of public instruction, to develop a plan for getting civics instruction back on track.

In fact, the resulting task force considered this mission so important that it defined its goals broadly and deeply. It aimed not just to achieve a modicum of improvement, but to aggressively address widespread apathy among the electorate, low voter participation and a generally dismal understanding of governmental operations — and that effort would be centered around K-12 education.

Educators have blamed the decline in civics education largely to the outsized importance placed on standardized testing scores, which resulted in students being drilled in math and English while other subjects were given short shrift.

But with the change to Common Core State Standards underway, the time was seen as ripe for revamping civics instruction to align with the new emphasis on critical thinking over rote memorization.

The task force’s recommendations included introducing new curriculum emphasizing civics in every grade, involving students in school government, additional teacher training and partnerships with government, business and nonprofits.

Then, in September 2014, a bill was passed, which Gov. Jerry Brown later signed into law, requiring history and social studies standards to integrate civic knowledge and skills into all grade levels.

Since then, the changes have been working their way into our schools, and that is indeed a positive step.

But more must be done, and that’s where –– as with all matters involving children and education — parents play a critical role.

And what better time than now, with an important election coming in a few days, to teach kids about our rights and responsibilities in a functioning democracy? It’s the perfect teachable moment.

If you think your lessons will be met with blank stares or eye rolls, you might be surprised to learn that child development specialists say that, contrary to what many of us might believe, most kids are very interested in learning about politics and the outcome of elections. They want to understand what’s going in in their world, how certain positions and policies could affect them, and how they can make a difference.

Of course, for parents to teach their children, they must first educate themselves.

Elections aren’t just about the high-profile national offices, and the well-being of our communities isn’t solely dependent on decisions made at the federal level. Choices made at the state, county and city level often have more direct impact on our lives; it’s crucial that we know who is representing us, what they stand for, and how they propose to deal with the issues that we care about.

For instance, two candidates are facing off for the job of California’s superintendent of public instruction, and the outcome of that contest will surely have repercussions for the direction of public education throughout the state. Local school board contests also bear close examination.

Do you know what the state Board of Equalization does? If not, then find out. (Hint: It has to do with taxes, and I know we all care about those.)

What’s more, we have 11 state propositions on the ballot this election, some controversial, some of which have garnered little attention so far. Study them all, read up on the arguments for and against — from reputable sources, not social media — and make informed decisions.

Then talk to your kids about all of it. Let them know how you are voting and why, and ask what they think. Encourage them to learn about candidates and issues, and to come to their own conclusions, even if their views differ from yours.

Most important, experts say, is for us to lead by example. Let your children see you reading your voter information guide and, if possible, filling out your ballot. Show them that you are excited to participate in our democratic process and grateful to have a voice.

The effort to incorporate more civics instruction in schools is a welcome development, but raising informed, involved citizens begins at home, with informed, involved parents.

Patrice Apodaca is a former Los Angeles Times staff writer and co-author of “A Boy Named Courage: A Surgeon’s Memoir of Apartheid.” She lives in Newport Beach.