Bar association pushes to revive civics studies
CAPITAL REGION Some teenagers at Notre Dame-Bishop Gibbons High School know qualities of good citizenship.
“I think a good citizen is someone with good moral standing and also a good sense of responsibility,” said Rob Paley, 17.
“It’s being aware of what’s going on around you,” offered Javier Stec, also 17.
“And taking an active involvement in the nation,” added 18-year-old Andrew Tatlock.
The New York State Bar Association wants to hear about more students like Rob, Javier and Andrew, who are studying Participation in Government this semester at the Schenectady private school. The association recently launched a campaign to put more emphasis on civics in state classrooms; bar members contend kids aren’t getting enough of the educational elements that make good citizens.
A report on civics education prepared by the association’s Law, Youth and Citizenship Committee — and adopted last month by the bar association during its annual meeting — said in part that “preserving the fundamental civic mission of schools is vital to the continued success of American constitutional democracy.”
Report authors criticize state education leaders for what they say is reduced emphasis on civics. They say social studies has become a secondary curriculum in schools, with history and civics lumped together under literature.
The report also mentions the recent elimination of state social studies tests in fifth and eighth grades and a plan by the Board of Regents to allow students to skip global studies and history exams and require fewer social studies credits for graduation.
According to the state Education Department, the Board of Regents eliminated social studies tests for the fifth and eighth grades in 2010.
“Although the grades 5 and 8 social studies tests have been eliminated,” department spokesman Jonathan Burman said in an email, “we still require that social studies be taught in all grades, kindergarten through eight.”
Burman also said Regents officials considered a proposal to make global history and geography exams optional for some students, “but that proposal was not adopted. That exam continues to be a high school graduation requirement.”
State Bar Association President David M. Schraver of Rochester, an attorney with that city’s Nixon Peabody law firm, said children who are taught the fundamentals of democracy grow up to be more active and engaged adults. He believes many Americans don’t know basic information about the U.S. system of government, about elected officials, about the way American democracy works.
“While we recognize the STEM education — science, technology, engineering and math emphasis — is important for the future of our economy, civics education is critical to the future of our democratic way of life,” Schraver said.
Schraver also said during Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s recent State of the State address, there was no mention of civics education. Emphasis was on STEM subjects.
“I appreciate that,” Schraver said. “My son is a high school science teacher, so I’m not minimizing the importance of those courses. But I don’t think you can do it at the sacrifice of civics education.”
According to state education officials, children are learning citizenship skills.
“Work on the Common Core social studies framework maintains the existing learning standards in social studies, including standard focus on civics, citizenship and government,” Burman said. “That standard provides: ‘Students will use a variety of intellectual skills to demonstrate their understanding of the necessity for establishing governments; the governmental systems of the United States and other nations; the United States Constitution; the basic civic values of American constitutional democracy; and the roles, rights, and responsibilities of citizenship, including avenues of participation.’ ”
Richard W. Bader, a Voorheesville attorney who chairs the Law, Youth and Citizenship Committee, also believes STEM subjects are key components in a high school education. Like Schraver, he also believes there have been reductions in civics education.
“It’s social studies, geography, history,” he said. “It’s really preparing students to be informed, active and engaged citizens — participants in their government.”
Bader believes he knows why the shift in emphasis has taken place.
“There seems to be more of an emphasis these days on preparing the next generation of workers with the emphasis on math and science,” he said. “But we do that at great risk by emphasizing those to the diminishment of civics.”
Teacher Richard Harrigan believes teens at Notre Dame-Bishop Gibbons are getting their fill of government. Only seniors can take his Participation in Government course, a college-level class monitored by Schenectady County Community College.
“When I’ve taught the class in previous years, I made it a requirement that students attend a local government meeting,” Harrigan said. “That’s something I’m considering doing again this year. We also register all the kids to vote, we try to make the students aware of their rights and responsibilities as citizens and to make them realize there is a role for them to play — and to encourage them to become as active politically as possible. That doesn’t necessarily mean running for office, but it does mean watching the news, communicating with their local representatives and being present for the entire process.”
Instead of school campaigns, Harrigan said that perhaps a civics campaign should have a national focus.
“Lack of civics has created the current political atmosphere,” he said. “It’s total polarization, unwillingness to compromise or viewing compromise as weakness.”
Notre Dame-Bishop Gibbons Assistant Principal Patrick Moran, a former history teacher, also sees values in government education. He believes knowing the past can have an impact on the future.
“There’s the old saying, learn from your mistakes so they are not deemed to repeat themselves,” he said.
Teens in Harrigan’s class seem happy to be learning about government in action.
“I enjoy it because I know it’s something that’s directly helping me become a better person and citizen,” said Claire Sise, who lives in Amsterdam. “I’m going to use this knowledge, and I know it has a direct result to it. Learning about the fundamentals of government and politics, I’ll be able to start formulating my opinions. And since I can vote because I’m 18, it means I’ll be able to use this and do something with it, so I can vote with this opinion.”
Ryan Kanai, 17, of Guilderland, said points and discussions from the government class can be used right away.
“There are immediate applications,” he said. “You go to class and you can go home and watch the news. You’ll learn things from the class that directly apply to everyday life.”
Martin Ziac, academic head of English and social studies at Scotia-Glenville High School, said there are still platforms in place for learning about roles of government and citizens at different grade levels. He said fifth-grade students talk about citizenship.
“Sixth grade is more world studies, and seventh and eighth grades are New York state and American history,” he said.
Global history topics are discussed during freshman and sophomore years. As juniors, Ziac said, students learn about the primary role of the U.S. Constitution. As seniors, learning about government is paired with economics — the teens receive a semester of each.
“Largely, they analyze issues and policies, and there’s a good deal of interaction with local government, where they have to attend town meetings or school board meetings,” Ziac said. “They used to write letters to the editors. It’s commonly taught that way across all local districts. So there’s still opportunity, there’s still tons of it.”
Ziac, who taught social studies for 17 years in the Scotia-Glenville district, doesn’t think math and science are the major issues.
“When you get in the younger grades, it’s math and English language arts. Because of all the testing in grades 3-8, you’ll find the elementary teachers are very nervous about test results in English and math, because that’s where the state exams are. They evaluated on them. ... Getting ready for those exams takes a lot of their time and a lot of their attention.”
Ziac knows the arguments for civics emphasis.
“That’s a concern that people have, that Americans aren’t informed and Americans don’t vote,” he said. “But kids are still interested in it. They just have to be taught it.”
And that means textbooks — and maybe too much time turning pages.
“I wish we could get out more and get more involved in the community, have more community-based projects and interact with our officials a little more,” Ziac said.
“In a perfect world, it would be nice to have the kids go out and do a civics-based project, helping the local government or helping the local town. It also would be nice if they could go out and see more officials or have more elected officials come to the school to interact with them. We just don’t have the opportunity or the time to get kids on a bus and bring them to the state Capitol like we would have years ago. Or the money.”