After a speech on education I gave as a state senator in 1974, I was approached by Sue Riley, a teacher skeptical of politicians who lacked classroom experience. How could we know what was best for students if it had been decades since we last stepped foot in a classroom?
Our conversation led me to spend a semester teaching civics at Miami Carol City Senior High School. The teaching experience was the beginning of what became the "workdays" program, through which I spent over 400 days working at jobs across Florida.
Thirty years later, the memory of teaching civics still motivates my work. Since my semester in the classroom, concern for political correctness plus a lack of institutional support, flexibility and funding have forced schools to de-emphasize civics. Most high schools today offer only one, often optional, civics course as opposed to the three courses that were the norm until the 1960s.
Not only has the quantity of civics education decreased, but there has been a steady decrease in quality. While older civics curricula emphasized civic participation and engagement in democracy, the current teaching is largely preparation for life as a spectator. In 2006, the National Assessment of Educational Progress reported that 81 percent of eighth and 12th grade students reported learning most about civics from watching television or in class videos. Only 18 percent and 25 percent, respectively, gained their insight by writing a letter expressing an opinion or helping to solve a community problem.
The results of this decline have been staggering. In 1972, the first year 18-year-olds could vote, more than half of the 18-to 25-year-olds turned out at the polls. In 2000 only slightly more than a third voted.
The data are even more jarring in traditionally disenfranchised communities. African-American, Hispanic and low-income students were twice as likely as their white counterparts to score below proficient on the 2006 NAEP in civics. How can government respond to the authentic voice of "we the people" if only some of the people speak up?
This week we got a discouraging but not surprising report card. The National Conference on Citizenship is developing indicators of civic health nationally and in the states. Based on public data and interviews with 506 Floridians, Florida's civic health was diagnosed as:
• 32nd in average voter turnout;
• 47th in average rate of volunteering;
• 49th in the percentage of Floridians who had attended a public meeting; and
• 40th in the percentage of Floridians who have worked with others in their neighborhood to solve a community problem.
Summarizing this information, Florida's Civic Health index for 2007 puts us at 47th in the nation.
Civic education can convert our democracy deficit into an abundance of civic knowledge and energy. This idea is not new. In describing the purposes of public education, Thomas Jefferson stated, "The objects of primary education … are to instruct the mass of citizens in these: their rights, interests, and duties as men and citizens … to understand his duties to his neighbors and country, and to discharge with competence the functions confided to him by either."
While much has changed in the two centuries since Jefferson wrote, his words continue to resonate. If we want future generations of Americans to sustain our democracy, we must educate them to be informed, skilled and engaged citizens.
The Florida Legislature has taken a first step. Today every middle school student is required to take one semester of civics. This summer a coalition of the Florida Bar, the League of Women Voters, the Lou Frey Institute of Politics at the University of Central Florida and the Bob Graham Center for Public Service at the University of Florida, with the generous support of the Helios Foundation, trained 133 middle school teachers to teach participatory democracy. More will be trained next summer.
Admittedly, our schools are being asked to educate students in everything from hygiene to driving a car. But there are creative ways to blend citizenship into other subjects. While an elementary student is learning the skills of reading, why not also start teaching him or her the content of American history? While high school chemistry students are focused on elements and compounds, wouldn't the course be more relevant if they also learned how science and civics have combined to make our air and water cleaner and safer?
In the age of high-stakes testing, a major advance will be the inclusion of civics in state assessments, such as the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, and the national No Child Left Behind student evaluation. The reality is if a subject is not tested, it tends to disappear from the curriculum. While not all policymakers agree with the current testing regimes, we should all be able to agree that if reading, math and science are tested, it does a disservice to our student citizens and our democracy if we fail to test civics.
Democracy does not automatically renew itself in each generation. Sustaining it requires a continued commitment to ensuring that all citizens have the knowledge, competence and motivation to make their mark on the American story.
Bob Graham is a former Florida U.S. senator, governor and state legislator.