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Children need to understand our government if they want to save it

Esther J. Cepeda on

CHICAGO -- It hardly seems possible, but it's happening: Students have gotten so fed up that they've resorted to legal action to get the education they need to become productive citizens.

As The Associated Press reported last week, a group of public school students and their parents filed a class-action lawsuit against Rhode Island's governor and the state's education officials, claiming that the state fails to prepare young people to fully participate in civic life.

The students are asking the federal courts to confirm the constitutional rights of all public-school students to a civics education that adequately prepares them to vote, exercise free speech, petition the government, serve on a jury, write a letter to a newspaper's editor, participate in a mock trial or otherwise actively engage in their communities.

Musah Mohammed Sesay, a high school senior and co-plaintiff in the suit, told the AP that he hasn't been exposed to the basics of how local government works or how decision-makers are held accountable by the citizens they govern.

It's a sad scene. Rhode Island doesn't have a civics-education requirement, doesn't require teachers to be trained in civics, and doesn't test students on their knowledge of civics and American history, according to Michael Rebell, a lead counsel in the case and a professor of law and educational practice at Teachers College, Columbia University in New York, who was interviewed by the Providence Journal.

Rebell said that the skill set is so low on the state's educational radar that the position of social-science coordinator within the Rhode Island Department of Education has been vacant for six months.

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The department counters that it requires three years of history/social studies to graduate from high school, and that it has grade-level standards that specifically talk about civics. But having standards on the books is one thing. Ensuring that educators are knowledgeable enough to teach the subject and then having an assessment in place to gauge how well the students learned it is quite another.

The Rhode Island suit, which could go as far as the Supreme Court, is not the only instance of students demanding that their education meet the most basic standards of usefulness in the real world.

In November, students in Lowell, Massachusetts, notched a victory. After a nine-year advocacy campaign, they succeeded in pushing for a law requiring the state to strengthen civics-education requirements. The law mandates that American history, social sciences and civics be taught in public schools. It also requires the schools to implement student-led civics projects for children in eighth grade and high school that encourage students to work with public officials and learn how their government works.

Meanwhile, a nonprofit organization called the Civics Education Initiative is pushing for states to require high school students to pass a test of 100 basic facts about U.S. history and civics before they can graduate. The questions are pulled from the same test that all immigrants are required to take to gain citizenship.

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