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Amy Curran: Embracing civics education in Oklahoma with more than a test

There is widespread recognition that Oklahoma needs to improve civics education in our schools to combat a lack of knowledge about and participation in our government. In response, Oklahoma legislators in both the House and Senate introduced bills this legislative session that would require all students, as a requirement for high school graduation, to pass the citizenship test identical to the test required of aliens seeking U.S. citizenship by naturalization. If this measure becomes law, Oklahoma will join over a dozen states that have implemented the testing requirement. Mandating this test is a promising effort to hold schools accountable for teaching basic civic facts. But a test, and the learning required to pass it, solve only the knowledge component of the problem and rest on the shaky conclusion that a better understanding of governmental institutions and process will yield higher participation. A better approach is available.

Generation Citizen is a civics education nonprofit that launched programming in Oklahoma City high schools this past semester called “action civics.” Just like students learn science by doing experiments in labs, not by just memorizing the periodic table, students must learn civics by doing civics. Memorizing branches of government is inadequate. Action civics facilitates classroom discussions of local, state or national issues, identification of how government (at various levels) affects the issue and hands-on interaction with community leaders, government officials and school administrators. Studies have found students who receive this type of robust civics education score highest on civic assessments. They leave class ready to do more than pass a test of factual knowledge – they are ready to think critically about what is on the news, exercise their right to vote in local, state, and national elections, and be engaged and active in democratic processes. During the spring semester in Oklahoma City, students worked on a variety of important local issues, such as city water quality, incarceration rates, youth homelessness, and school discrimination policies.

A civics education that truly prepares students for active citizenship must include analysis of current events, deliberative discussion, and the opportunity to participate, hands-on, in local democratic processes. Action civics accomplishes these goals and is compatible with the state’s existing education policy and is better than a test to accomplish the recently overhauled social studies curriculum standards’ lofty vision that schools should “develop informed, competent, and responsible citizens who are politically active and aware.”

Plainly, we cannot stop with the citizenship test. Legislation enacted in Illinois, and recently introduced in Massachusetts provide examples of civics instruction that achieves the full spirit of Oklahoma’s existing vision for students. We value the variety of voices that coalesce and articulate the pioneer spirit of the great plains. Civic facts are a piece of the solution but to go beyond the division that has taken hold of our citizens we need civic skills to effectively communicate and reach consensus that unites us. It is imperative that we consider how Oklahoma legislators can learn from such models to supplement their existing ideas.

Oklahomans rightly take pride in our state and the relationship we have to the rest of the country. To maintain what we have and improve, we must ensure that the next generations are prepared to be active and engaged participants in our democracy. The tools for this must be taught in schools. The citizenship test as a high school requirement is a start, but students need more than facts. They need knowledge paired with tools for action. We need legislation.

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