Skip to main content

Do our children know how to be citizens?

By Robert Pondiscio, Special to CNN
updated 1:45 PM EDT, Thu July 4, 2013
A new U.S. citizen holds a flag July 3 along with her citizenship papers. Would-be citizens must pass a civics and history test.
A new U.S. citizen holds a flag July 3 along with her citizenship papers. Would-be citizens must pass a civics and history test.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Robert Pondiscio: Education reform is all about preparing kids for college and careers
  • Pondiscio: But we need to teach how to be good citizens capable of running a democracy
  • Constitution framers believed students must know civic rights and responsibilities, he says
  • Pondiscio: Today, only one of five eighth-graders is proficient in civics and history

Editor's note: Robert Pondiscio is a former fifth grade teacher and the executive director of Citizenship First, a civic education organization based at Harlem's Democracy Prep Public Schools.

(CNN) -- When you're chowing down on hot dogs and hamburgers on this most patriotic of national holidays, try this experiment: Ask your friends and neighbors across the picnic table why they send their kids to school.

Chances are good that nearly everyone you ask will give an answer that reveals a private, dollars-and-cents view of education. We want to see our kids go to college, get good jobs, earn a decent living and make something of themselves.

Robert Pondiscio
Robert Pondiscio

We send our kids to school and hope they grow up to lead happy, productive lives, and with luck wind up a little better off than their parents. For most of us, education is the engine of upward mobility. These private aspirations are as American as apple pie.

But we send kids to school not just to become employees and entrepreneurs, but citizens capable of wise and effective self-government in our democracy. This public dimension of schooling was a founding principle of American education. We have all but forgotten it in the current era of education overhaul.

CIVICS QUIZ

In order to become a naturalized U.S. citizen, you must pass an oral exam on history, civics and geography. Here are some of the hardest questions on the U.S. Citizenship Test -- and the percentage of Americans who know the correct answers.

1. When was the Constitution written?

A: 1787 (9%)

2. The House of Representatives has how many voting members?

A: 435 (16%)

3. What is the rule of law?

Government must obey the law; no one is above the law. (15%)

4. Name two rights in Declaration of Independence.

A: Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness (18%)

5. Under the Constitution, some powers belong to the states. What is one power of the states?

Provide schooling and education; provide protection (police) and safety (fire departments) issue driver's licenses; and approve zoning and land use. (23%)

6. What does the judicial branch do?

Reviews or explains laws, resolves disputes, or decides if a law is unconstitutional (25%)

7. Who is the Chief Justice of the United States right now?

John Roberts (26%)

8. We elect a U.S. senator for how many years?

Six. (29%)

9. What is the supreme law of the land?

The U.S. Constitution. (29%)

10. How many justices are on the Supreme Court?

Nine. (32%)

This would strike our earliest thinkers about education as strange and foolish, even dangerous. Men like Benjamin Rush, Noah Webster and Horace Mann saw citizen-making as the most basic aim of education in our young nation. They understood that democracy is a historical long shot.

Every young student used to learn the famous story about Benjamin Franklin leaving the Constitutional Convention in 1787. A woman asked him what kind of government he and the other delegates had decided on. "A republic, madam -- if you can keep it," he replied.

Franklin and the framers of the Constitution knew republics had a nasty habit of being overwhelmed by factions and falling apart. Teaching children to understand, value and peaceably exercise their rights and responsibilities -- to keep the republic -- was indispensable to our democracy and could not be taken for granted. Where were those citizens, those "republican machines" in Benjamin Rush's phrase, to be created if not in our schools?

We've drifted a long way from this view of public education. We typically hear the performance of America's children in reading, math and science described as a crisis. But these are areas of strength compared with civics and history. One out of three U.S. eighth-graders score "proficient" or higher on the National Assessment of Educational Progress in reading, math and science. But only about one out of five eighth-graders is proficient in civics and history.

The U.S. Department of Education is not alarmed. It recently announced future NAEP tests in civics, U.S. history and geography for fourth- and 12th-graders would be postponed indefinitely.

A shocking 85% of Americans cannot correctly describe the "rule of law," as bedrock a principle as we have. A similar percentage cannot identify the Constitution as the "supreme law of the land."

Students who don't know their rights don't recognize when those rights are threatened. Students who don't know how laws are made will never make or demand changes to them. Those who don't understand their country's history and traditions are less than second-class citizens. They are passive bystanders unprepared to participate in our democracy and disinclined to do so.

One way or another, schools will shape our children as citizens. The question is whether we want them to do so by accident or neglect, or by thinking carefully about the civic knowledge, skills and republic-keeping mindset our children will need to nurture and maintain our democracy in the 21st century and beyond.

There should be room, even in our test-driven, college and career focused classrooms, to cultivate an understanding and appreciation of America's founding principles and documents, and how our government functions.

A sound, basic education can and should promote national identity, unity and loyalty without indoctrination. Developing pride in America's history and ideals in no way conflicts with the goal of creating independent, free-thinking citizens in a pluralistic society. If our children are to keep the republic, they must understand and value the thing they are being asked to keep.

For good or for ill, the education reform movement of the last few decades has achieved a nearly unquestioned consensus that the big picture goal of K-12 education is to ensure that all of America's children leave school "college or career ready."

By all means, let's prime the pump of our economic competitiveness with more college-goers, more science, math and technology graduates. Let's ensure every child has a shot at a private piece of the American Dream.

But let's also make sure schools still perform the greatest possible public service: preparing our children to be the informed citizens a stable, self-governing country needs.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Robert Pondiscio.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
updated 9:02 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
updated 12:00 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
updated 7:35 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
updated 9:12 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
updated 2:51 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
updated 6:07 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
updated 4:12 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
updated 11:36 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
updated 10:21 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
updated 8:28 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
updated 9:00 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
updated 4:33 PM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
updated 12:42 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
updated 4:43 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
updated 4:58 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
updated 9:42 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
updated 8:21 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
updated 4:27 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
updated 12:07 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
updated 12:29 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
updated 6:45 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
updated 1:00 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
updated 7:01 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
updated 1:44 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
updated 9:35 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
updated 10:08 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
updated 7:25 AM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
updated 4:04 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
updated 9:07 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
updated 6:50 PM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
updated 11:43 AM EDT, Sat October 11, 2014
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT