Educators Need to Renew Focus on Civic Education

In a "fireside chat" hosted by the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, Sen. Dianne Feinstein discussed cybersecurity threats, ISIS gaining unprecedented power and global presence, the savage beheading of two American journalists and Russia's tenuous ceasefire with Ukraine.

The California Democrat spoke bluntly to Carl Gauardino, president of the leadership group and moderator of the event, and an audience of 400 last week about foreign affairs, while touching on subjects important to the tech world, like digital privacy and patent protection.

Yet, there was an issue mentioned by Feinstein almost in passing that piqued my interest—something that Americans from President Barack Obama to Governor Jerry Brown, from Mayor Chuck Reed to Santa Clara County Supervisor Mike Wasserman and county School Board President Leon Beauchman should give a renewed focus. The issue: civics education.

Feinstein told the room that when she hosts a group of students in Washington D.C., she is appalled at the lack of information they have about their own government.

Students, she asserted, struggle with even the basics of civic knowledge. The answers the students give to her queries are very often weak or wrong. Because she's a California lawmaker, I assume many or most of these students are from the Golden State's public schools.

For me, as an educator, that is the crisis as threatening to the future of democracy as jihadists and cyber attacks. Just as the President will address the nation about a strategy to defeat ISIS, he should call for a plan to address the dearth of civics literacy among our K-12 students.

According to the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress, two-thirds of students have at least a basic knowledge of civics. But only 24 percent are deemed proficient.

As an elected member of the Santa Clara County Office of Education, I will ask our board of trustees to tackle this issue on a future agenda (preferably once we are able to live stream our meetings). My hope is that they will draft a resolution similar to the one passed by the Seattle City Council and King County Council in Washington state.

The March 17  "Civics for All" resolution drummed up by Seattle Councilman Nick Licata calls for an increase in civics education, the study of the rights and duties of citizenship and the relationship between citizens and their government.

One of the main goals of the initiative developed by Seattle schoolteacher Web Hutchins is to increase student engagement with their government. Mock elections in schools on local, state and national initiatives will be encouraged throughout Seattle.

Twenty-five years ago, our county Office of Education employed a staff dedicated to civics and law education. The late Norma Wright (1930-2014), who retired from the county in 1990, was a coordinator in social science for civics content.

Norma encouraged a countywide effort to increase the work public schools do with Center For Civics Education in Calabasas, Calif., and the Constitutional Rights Foundation in Los Angeles. She tirelessly promoted the importance of teaching especially at-risk youth the importance of law education. Law-related education, she held, transformed students from at-risk to resilient, developing characteristics that lead to healthy behavior.

The student mock trials in Santa Clara County are another part of Norma's legacy to engage youth in civics learning.

Learning about the way the government and legal system work give children opportunity and skills to succeed in life—and making a lasting impact in their community.

Joseph Di Salvo is a member of the Santa Clara County Office of Education’s Board of Trustees. He is a San Jose native. His columns reflect his personal opinion.

4 Comments

  1. Real “Civics Education” would be a wonderful thing.

    Unfortunately, I don’t see a way to get there from here.

    The LAST people we can entrust with “Civics Education” is the Big Government public education establishment and their teachers union collaborationists.

  2. As an increasing percentage of the student population have parents who have no ingrained sense of American history or values it’s unrealistic to expect their kids to absorb at home any understanding of what made this country great, as used to be the case. So that leaves this important job to our schools.
    Unfortunately, it’s even more unrealistic to expect our public “educators” to impart any sense of traditional American values with their brand of “civics education”.
    In a nutshell, we’re screwed. Well, not really screwed- we’re just another country. Just another sniveling, squalid, third world, pissant country just as the DiSalvos and the Robinsons and the Obamas and the Lofgrens and the Guardinos want us to be.

  3. > Just another sniveling, squalid, third world, pissant country just as the DiSalvos and the Robinsons and the Obamas and the Lofgrens and the Guardinos want us to be.

    Celebrate diversity, Galt.

  4. Thank you joe disalvo for your kind remarks about my mother, Norma Wright. While she would have vigorously disagreed with some of the somewhat pessimistic comments already made about article about the subject of civic education she would have equally been vigorously supportive of their authors’ right to express them. If not for the efforts of educators to increase the knowledge of our nation’s youth who will inherit our country and who can share their knowledge with others, one can only imagine how much less informed we would all be. Our nation may not be perfect but it’s the best game in town and we should all strive to keep it that way. Let us not lose sight of the enlightened citizenry and the continued commitment to that ideal through civic education that we will need to make it stronger and better than ever.