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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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News >  Education

Always important, teaching civics is seen as even more so now

UPDATED: Sun., Feb. 7, 2021

Shadle Park High School teacher Mark Miller leads his AP U.S. Government and Politics class discussion on Jan. 28 with students Jarred McDougall, from left, Asher Sterling, Joe Broadhurst, Kellan Burns and Carley Bachmeier.  (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Shadle Park High School teacher Mark Miller leads his AP U.S. Government and Politics class discussion on Jan. 28 with students Jarred McDougall, from left, Asher Sterling, Joe Broadhurst, Kellan Burns and Carley Bachmeier. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

When talking about the importance of teaching civics to Washington students, there seem to be two schools of thought.

One, it has always been important. The other, it has never been more important.

Mark Miller, who teaches civics at Shadle Park High School, said the nation is at a crossroads, which may make civics more important than ever.

“The storming of the Capitol, as well as the Antifa and Black Lives Matter movements, have all brought forward the need for civic engagement and understanding, as well as the importance of a public that is willing to work towards an understanding of structures and events,” Miller said in an email.

Young adults – and everyone else – need new tools to digest the mass of information the public is hit with today, he said.

State Sen. Sam Hunt, an Olympia Democrat who is a former teacher and a 20-year veteran of the Legislature, said civics is as important as ever, but the schools have a bigger role in getting young adults to understand it.

Newspapers are closing or shrinking, he said. Some programs that also introduce students to how their government works, such as mock courtroom sessions and youth in government programs, are canceled because of the pandemic.

Even the Legislature’s page program, which brought several hundred students from across the state to Olympia to be part of the session, isn’t happening this year, he said.

Three years ago, Hunt and other legislators were concerned that civics was getting the short shrift in schools.

“We found that in many schools, teaching government fell by the wayside,” Hunt said. “Because it wasn’t part of the high-stakes testing, it was shoved aside.”

He co-sponsored legislation to require Washington high schools to teach a semester of civics to juniors or seniors.

Hunt volunteered for his first political campaign as a seventh -grader in 1956 because his parents sent him to the local Democratic headquarters so often to pick up campaign literature that someone in the office recruited him. He later met his future wife at a Young Democrats meeting.

But most of his fellow students didn’t care much about government, and he doesn’t think that has changed much in the last half century.

“I think it’s important that we try to instill that basic understanding of government,” he said.

The Washington Legislature passed a requirement that civics instruction be part of social studies curricula in elementary and middle schools, and passing a half semester class on civics would be a requirement for graduating from high school

It was part of a national push for civics education. In 2016, Idaho lawmakers required students in that state pass a version of the test administered to immigrants seeking to become naturalized U.S. citizens. Each school district decides how to comply with that law.

In Coeur d’Alene Public Schools, students must take a test based on the 100 questions in the naturalization test. Mike Nelson, the district’s director of assessment and system performance, said students can take the test as early as seventh grade but must pass with at least 60% correct in order to graduate.

The naturalization test administered to prospective citizens is oral, but the students take a test on secure computers that is a mixture of multiple choice questions and “selected response” questions where more than one answer may apply. The federal government issued a new, longer test last year, but not in time for adoption in Idaho this school year, district officials said.

Around 78% pass on the first try. Those who don’t have four “windows” per year – fall, early winter, late winter and spring – to retake the test until they pass. At the end of the year, the district tells teachers and students what questions were most often missed, to help with instruction and studying for a retake.

“It’s not intended to be a ‘gotcha’ test,” Nelson said

The category that gave students the most problems in the latest window had to do with the system of government, with questions about the number of seats in Congress and the names of current government officials.

Nelson said he graduated from Coeur d’Alene High School years ago with a good grasp of civics, but the requirement “puts another level on top of that” knowledge.

Jake Martyn, who teaches civics at Spokane’s North Central High School, said when he started teaching the class 10 years ago, one of the biggest problems was the students’ apathy.

“Kids viewed civics, government and politics as boring and not relevant to them,” Martyn said. “Recently, kids are much more passionate and engaged now, which is obviously a great thing.”

Dale Stedman, who teaches an Advanced Placement Government course, which includes the civics curriculum at Mead High School, agreed.

He’s seen an increase in interest by students going back about six years, to the start of Donald Trump’s candidacy, continuing through his administration and the ongoing political conflicts.

“The kids are keying into that,” Stedman said. Unlike most adults, however, his students are able to discuss their different views with “an emphasis on civil discourse.”

Most of the basics of civics haven’t changed much in the 10 years he’s been teaching, Martyn said.

“At the heart of civics is just an understanding of how our government operates, and that is a pretty timeless concept,” he said. But teachers have to make sure their students’ passion and enthusiasm are grounded in facts and an understanding of history, along with an awareness that there’s plenty of misinformation online.

Miller, who has been teaching for 24 years and taught economics before taking on courses in AP government and civics seven years ago, said one key to today’s program is to teach critical thinking that’s more than just a “buzzword.”

“Analyze the merit and faults of information as you come to understanding or positions on issues,” he said. Teachers have excellent resources to help students with confirmation bias and misinformation so they can think critically about issues and the news of the day.

Rep. Laurie Dolan, the prime sponsor of the legislation that requires Washington high school students to have a semester of civics to graduate, said the law was prompted in part by a new civics textbook from the League of Women Voters, and has led to better resources for teachers through the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction.

“Looking at current situations around the U.S., I would say that civics is more important today,” she said.

But Dolan, who worked as a teacher and administrator for Spokane Public Schools for 30 years before moving to Olympia, said today’s young adults may be better equipped to be active in their communities. When she hears older people complaining about “kids today being so uneducated” her standard response is, “Do you know any?”

“My experience when I’m around kids today is they’re better educated and more responsible,” she said. “I am not at all worried about the future leaders in this country.”

She’s not nearly as confident about some of the current leaders, Dolan added, especially those in Washington, D.C.

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