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A tale of two school systems

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Cepeda
May 15, 2011
— High school seniors have gotten another grim report card in civics. According to the recently released 2010 National Assessment of Educational Progress, 64 percent of public school students who are either voting age, or close to it, have only a partial understanding of the rights and duties of citizenship in America’s constitutional democracy.

This is a smaller percentage than in 2006—on par with students’ civics understanding in 1998, before the 9/11 attacks, the subsequent wars and the groundbreaking 2008 elections that included the first competitive female and African-American presidential candidates in history.


Only 24 percent of 12th-graders were considered competent, and a scant 4 percent have what the report describes as a “thorough and mature understanding” of the foundations of the American political system, of the relationship of the United States to other nations and to world affairs, and of the roles of citizens in American democracy.


Only the advanced students can explain how the structure of American government and the nation’s social and political cultures serve one another and how elections help determine public policies. They can identify and evaluate different forms of participation in public affairs and are able to explain how American foreign policy is made and carried out and can evaluate its consequences.


And it almost goes without saying that white and Asian/Pacific Islander students continue to have a significantly better understanding of their rights and responsibilities as citizens than black, Hispanic and American Indian/Alaska native students.


These numbers tell the tale of the two American school systems. Though 97 percent of students reported studying civics or government in high school, schools in poorer districts that serve large numbers of minority students spend little time on subjects that don’t directly feed into plans for meeting the reading and math benchmarks of the No Child Left Behind law.


In contrast, students whose parental affluence puts them in high-performing public schools—or who win spots in high-performing magnet or charter schools by the luck of the draw—are exposed to civics not merely as a dry collection of constitutional facts that must be digested and regurgitated for a test but as the basis for personal and political empowerment, and social and economic and mobility.


Luck is how Portia Amofa, a senior at Hamilton High School in Los Angeles and president of its student body, came into the skills for rallying fellow students to fight to keep their arts and humanities teachers. She sprung into action after California’s budget woes caused the Los Angeles Unified School District to give layoff notices to a jaw-dropping 7,000 teachers and staff in March.


“I have the privilege of going to a very good school,” Amofa said as she described the stark differences between the schools her neighbors attend and Hamilton, a magnet school with a minority-majority student body and small learning communities dedicated to arts, business, technology, global studies and medicine. “Going to a magnet, I know I’ve gotten all the tools necessary to confront challenges like this in my life.”


I spoke to Amofa after the civics report card numbers were released. She explained how she’s already felt the pain of her peers’ lack of knowledge. When she tried connecting with other schools’ student leaders to organize walkouts, fax campaigns, voter registrations and letters to parents asking them to contact legislators on their behalf, she hit a wall.


“I didn’t get many responses. Students at other schools were just struggling to educate themselves on what their power was to stop these layoffs even if they themselves aren’t all yet eligible to vote.”


Hamilton student leaders had to ask “Rock the Vote,” an organization that provides young people with voter education and assistance with registration drives, to come help students and parents organize themselves and protest the gutting of their school’s teachers. And though the teachers aren’t saved yet, the lessons in political power that Amofa’s classroom education gave her should be available to all students.


The civics report card did show some signs of promise for coming generations: Fourth-graders demonstrated a steady upward trend in their civics knowledge. But the disparities are still stark and educational policymakers need to give meaningful civics knowledge some long overdue attention. Gaining the wherewithal to participate in our democracy should not be reserved only for the affluent or the lucky.


Esther Cepeda is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group. Her email address is estherjcepeda@washpost.com.

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