For Md. students, election provides a lesson in civics

Education: Schools are seizing `a teachable moment' to spark interest in social studies.

October 20, 2004|By Sara Neufeld | Sara Neufeld,SUN STAFF

At Middle River Middle School, pupils are taking to heart the saying that every vote counts.

If all 874 of them vote in the school's mock presidential election next week, social studies teacher Clif Scruggs will have a barber shave his head in front of the school. If anyone doesn't vote, either in person or by absentee ballot, he's calling the barber to cancel.

Scruggs is one of many teachers using the presidential election to spark children's interest in the workings of civic life.

At a time when the state of civics education is of widespread concern, students around Maryland and the nation are analyzing the presidential debates and staging debates of their own. They're making mock voter registration cards, taping mock newscasts and papering school hallways with campaign posters.

"It is a teachable moment, and I'm glad that schools are really seizing it," said state Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick, who will convene a task force next month to suggest improvements in social studies education. "But I want it sustained. I don't want it to be, `In another four years, we'll gear up again.'"

As a result of the high-stakes tests required by the federal No Child Left Behind law, elementary schools in particular have been strongly emphasizing reading and math, often at the expense of social studies. High schools, meanwhile, continue to turn out many graduates who do not vote and have little knowledge about how government functions.

Voter turnout has historically been lowest among 18- to 24-year-olds. In the 2000 presidential election, for example, 42 percent of Marylanders in that age group voted, compared with 70 percent of those 25 and older. In the 2002 midterm election, 25 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds voted, compared with 62 percent of their elders.

And in 1998, the last time a uniform civics test was administered to students around the country, only a quarter of high school seniors scored at the proficient level or above. A third were "below basic," meaning they lacked a fundamental understanding of how government works.

"The public school system was created to ensure an educated citizenry, but that education for citizenship seems to be one of the objectives that has become pushed aside," said Susan Griffin, executive director of the National Council for the Social Studies, which represents 25,000 teachers.

But in addition to increased activity in classrooms this fall, national polls are showing increased interest in this election among young people - likely as a result of the Sept. 11 attacks and the war in Iraq, researchers say. Students say efforts such as Sean "P. Diddy" Combs' "Vote or Die" campaign are catching their attention.

Last week at New Era Academy in Baltimore's Cherry Hill neighborhood, the sophomores in Morakot Masokas' social studies class were analyzing the second presidential debate - and talking about how to respond to peer pressure not to care about the election.

"If other students our age see we are interested, they may get involved," said Carlise Addison, 15. She's frustrated that she can't vote, even though she's watched the debates and kept up with the news.

Donald Phillips, also 15, said he was able to persuade a few of his apathetic friends to watch the debate with him and his parents. He, too, is frustrated: Everyone assumes Baltimore's black communities will vote Democratic, he said, and therefore no one courts them for votes.

Experts say students need opportunities early on to participate in civic life and to learn that what they think matters.

"Young people don't have an opportunity to participate, and as a result they come to the conclusion that nobody cares what they think," said Rick Battistoni, a Providence College professor specializing in citizenship education. "There's a lot of cynicism that our votes don't really matter."

Battistoni said that cynicism can be compounded in states such as Maryland where presidential candidates are not actively campaigning. As a result, he encourages schools to also focus on state and local elections.

Last year, more than 50 leading researchers and educators released a report, The Civic Mission of Schools, containing several recommendations. Among them: Schools should not shy away from discussing controversial current events. They should provide opportunities for community service linked to the curriculum and encourage student participation in school governance and simulations of democratic processes.

The report says Americans are becoming more disengaged from civic and political life. Maryland officials say they are taking steps to address that.

Maryland formerly administered a civics test that required students only to memorize such basic facts as the minimum age for a president. Starting with the Class of 2007, students will have to pass a more rigorous test in American government to graduate. While many of the questions are multiple choice, several require critical analysis.

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