Two news items should give us pause about how we are teaching and learning civics.
Item No. 1: American eighth graders’ civics scores have declined for the first time ever, according to just-released scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the “Nation’s Report Card.” And history scores continued a decadelong drop to bottom out as the worst since the test was first given nearly 30 years ago.
Item No. 2: Florida officials are excising relevant history from some new history books. Here is a passage on the killing of George Floyd that was deleted from a new middle school textbook:
In 2020, bystanders captured video footage of a white Minneapolis police officer killing George Floyd, an unarmed Black American accused of using a counterfeit $20 bill. Floyd’s brutal killing horrified many Americans, and protests broke out in cities across the country.
While many Americans sympathized with the Black Lives Matter movement, others were critical. Critics blamed the movement for incidences of violence or looting at protests. Others charged that the movement was anti-police, especially after some in the movement called for local governments to cut or eliminate funding for the police.
The reason this section was eliminated? Not that it was inaccurate or biased. The concern was that it dealt with “unsolicited topics.”
Now, let’s look at a sample question from the NAEP civics test:
“So long as we have enough people in this country willing to fight for their rights, we’ll be called a democracy.” — Roger Baldwin, founder of the American Civil Liberties Union.
What is the main idea of the quotation?
A. In a democracy, all people must obey the laws.
B. In a democracy, citizens should protect their freedoms.
C. In a democracy, government leaders make the laws.
D. In a democracy, people are ruled by a central government.
When Florida is editing relevant history out of textbooks because the topic was “unsolicited,” is it any wonder that students might struggle on a civics test to answer B, that “In a democracy, citizens should protect their freedoms”?
Rather than excise George Floyd’s story from a textbook, Florida should learn from it, which requires a fuller spotlight of what happened on that fateful day, May 25, 2020 — and in the months and years thereafter. This story isn’t solely about Floyd’s death, but about how individual citizens reacted in real time to exercise their democratic rights. Those bystanders flexed their legal authority to shoot that critical video, lawfully documenting the abuse that brought these officers to justice. Four officers involved in his death were prosecuted and ordered to prison. The world was reminded that police powers in America are not absolute, that regular people make a difference, and that justice — however elusive — can be brought to bear. The reverberations from these lessons continue to shake the nation today; on Wednesday, a U.S. Army sergeant convicted of murdering a protester at a Black Lives Matter rally in 2020 was sentenced to 25 years in prison. Why should Florida’s students not be learning that our democracy’s survival requires mandatory participation, indeed, that “citizens should protect their freedoms”?
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Civics education is supposed to help students learn how to become good citizens. The George Floyd chapter has a lot to teach, if only Florida would let the lesson be learned.
Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, Sherri Day, Sebastian Dortch, John Hill, Jim Verhulst and Chairman and CEO Conan Gallaty. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.