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Curriculum & Instruction        < Previous        Next >


Making Sure Kids Know Civics


Q. I always thought that teaching civics ranked right up there with the old 3 R's in terms of priority subjects that American schools must deliver. But the Southeast Asian immigrant who maintains my acrylic nails and just got her citizenship knows more about American government than my high-school honor student who has lived here all his life. What has happened to civics?


Can you name the three branches of American government? (legislative, executive, and judicial) If so, you are among the one-half of Americans who know this very basic fact about the U.S. government and Constitution. The rest are clueless on this and many other principles of American civics.


You can blame it on the textbooks or the left-wing, pro-Marxist political ideologies of the teachers' union leadership. But the bottom line is that far too few Americans understand our Constitution and our government, when they were supposed to be taught those facts while in school. It's the fault of the school boards who through inaction or incompetence have failed to insist on this basic mission.


The Intercollegiate Studies Institute ( has studied college students and adults on their civics knowledge, and reports that neither group has the civic knowledge they need to be informed citizens and intelligent voters.


ISI administered a simple, basic test on American history, government and economics to 2,500 Americans age 25 and older. The multiple-choice test asked citizens to identify terms that everybody should know, such as the New Deal, the Electoral College, Sputnik, I Have a Dream, and progressive tax.


The 2,500 adults scored an average of 49 percent - a grade of "F."


Almost 40 percent of respondents said they thought the president (rather than Congress) has the power to declare war. Only 50 percent knew that Congress shares authority with the president over U.S. foreign policy, and almost one in four thought Congress shares authority over U.S. foreign policy with the United Nations.


You have to conclude that their schools failed to teach them civics, or if they did, they didn't teach them very well. Neither situation is good.


In another study, the Goldwater Institute ( gave a version of the United States Citizenship Test to Arizona public high school students, but only 3.5 percent of them got six or more questions correct, the passing score for immigrants.

In response to those disturbing results, the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs ( gave the same test to Oklahoma high school students, and the percentage passing was even worse: 2.8 percent.

That result is yet another piece of evidence that state and national learning standards don't work, and that school curriculum in the important area of civics is falling far short of state law. Consider Oklahoma's state civics standard, and remember that for 97% of Oklahoma students, this didn't happen:


Oklahoma schools teach social studies in Kindergarten through Grade 12...A social studies education encourages and enables each student to acquire a core of basic knowledge, an arsenal of useful skills, and a way of thinking drawn from many academic disciplines. Thus equipped, students are prepared to become informed, contributing, and participating citizens in this democratic republic, the United States of America.


Homework: Here's a thorough article on the problem that you could share with your school board members:


Here is a bank of civics questions (with answers below) that you could give to your school board. How well do THEY score? Ask that these facts be taught to the kids in your district, followed up with a test and maybe a celebration on Sept. 17, which is Constitution Day:



By Susan Darst Williams Curriculum 17 2009


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