Nearly 70 percent of school board members across New York State who responded to a recent survey think civic readiness should be a high school graduation requirement.
That's one of the findings of a survey by the New York State School Boards Association. The response to that particular question surprised executive director Tim Kremer.
"Because we are typically not seeing additional graduation requirements being offered, being proposed by school board members," Kremer said.
Kremer said civics curriculum has been edged out over the years to make way for state and federally mandated requirements.
Only 50 percent of respondents to the survey said their district does a good job preparing students to be active citizens. New York State’s Common Core standards do outline civics education as part of the high school social studies curriculum, but Kremer said it’s not clear how many districts have adopted the guidelines, which he said amount to more of a recommendation than a requirement.
Now, the New York State Board of Regents is putting a renewed emphasis on civics education. The regents are in the process of defining what it means to be a good citizen.
They are establishing a committee of parents, specialists, administrators, school libraries and college professors whose job it will be to decide how to gauge whether students are ready to participate in a democracy.
The Board of Regents is specific about the student skills that should be assessed. They include knowledge of history and how government works, creative thinking and media literacy, and the ability to connect democratic concepts to real world events.
"And the last thing is really important today,” Kremer said, “a personal disposition that promotes tolerance and respect. Boy, if you have a student who is really good at those things - if your school is doing a good job of preparing kids along those lines - that's a very positive thing."
The NYSSBA believes civics education is important enough to be on an equal footing with college and career readiness as school districts define their priorities.
But not every school district has the resources to add a robust civics program to its curriculum.
"We're not preparing our students for college or the work force at this time,” said Rochester School Board member Beatriz LeBron, “and until we get a grasp on those challenges, I certainly can't see how we're preparing them to be more civically engaged."
Despite those limitations, LeBron agrees that civic readiness should be a high school graduation requirement in New York. In fact, she believes students should start learning about government participation much earlier.
"I have a seven year old in second grade in the district,” she said, “and I talk to her about voting and I bring her with me every election. We talk about who's running for office and what each office does. I think kids, even as young as seven, can have an understanding if they're exposed to it early on."
LeBron said perhaps community-based groups, such as Metro Justice and Citizen Action, which emphasize citizen engagement for adults, could adapt those efforts to teach youth about good citizenship. Promoting civil discussion among people with opposing views is a skill she thinks is critical.
“I have friends who are Democrat who won’t hear another side out,” LeBron said. “I do want to hear why someone has the belief that they have, whether I agree with them or not.”
According to about 40 percent of the school board members who took the NYSSBA survey, debates over political issues have polarized their school district.
"The fact of the matter is,” Kremer noted, “a lot of these communities are feeling that kind of back and forth I think our country is feeling these days around the issues that are either confronting you either nationally or locally."