August 10, 2014

Democracy in decline: Report votes for training better citizens

A yearlong study released last week concludes schools could help foster civic learning, and longtime Modesto City Schools trustee Cindy Marks helped draft it.

While complaining about government is as popular as ever, voting appears to be losing its red, white and blue appeal. The endless stream of lawsuits and arrests runs up against a populace loath to do jury service.

What’s a democracy to do?

A yearlong state study released last week waved red flags at the state of civics education and urged updated lessons be taught in every grade. Modesto City Schools board President Cindy Marks helped draft it.

Marks took part in the California Task Force on K-12 Civic Learning, a 20-member group empaneled by state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson and California Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye. The task force issued its final report Tuesday in a daylong session of recommendations and action plans.

“We accomplished a lot in a year,” said Marks, who was chairwoman of the business and community subgroup. She took the post representing the California School Boards Association, and said she has a passion for the subject.

“Students need to understand, how does your government work?” she said. “And if something is not working, how do you, as a student, change that? How can you solve problems with your civic leaders? How can you be part of the solution? Part of that is helping students understand their rights and responsibilities as a voter, and as a juror, as a witness.”

The goals of good citizenship extend from students believing they have a voice to seek changes at their school, to adults being able to effectively govern.

“We’ve really lost the ability to have civil debates, to be able to conquer difficult problems together, to find a way to have those difficult discussions and find those solutions together,” Marks said.

“That was what our founding forefathers were extremely adept at. They had to listen to all sides because that’s how you make it last. You build support, and when you have support, it will succeed.”

The report notes the United States ranks 139th in voter participation out of 172 democracies around the world. In Stanislaus County, 26 percent of eligible voters cast ballots in the June primaries and only 23 percent voted in the November general election.

“As a nation, we already know how to do civic learning well,” comments the report, listing these strategies:

• Classroom instruction in government, history, law and economics, with discussions of current events and controversies.
• Service learning projects and extracurricular activities linked to classroom lessons.
• Simulations of democratic processes, like mock elections.
• Student participation in school governance.

The report concludes by recommending the state develop and adopt civics lessons for every grade, starting in kindergarten. Testing and teacher training on those lessons, and community input on funding them, should be part of the plan, the report says.

It also says civic leaders should be available to schools to help bring those lessons to life, a recommendation brought forward by Marks’ group.

“We found that communicating with the community and asking them to come in as guest speakers was helpful,” Marks said. Her group also suggested having recognition of that participation and awards for outstanding teachers or businesses working with strong civics programs.

“Those are ways of promoting what it means to be a good citizen in our communities,” she said.

The report quotes Robert Ruckman, a teacher at Arvin High School in Kern County: “There is not a magic (power) that comes down on your 18th birthday and hits you with a wand and says, ‘Now you are a great citizen, go out there and do it.’ You have to teach this.”

Civics education withered under recessionary budget cuts and the No Child Left Behind concentration on math and reading. But some programs survived.

The Constitutional Rights Foundation supports the Mock Trial Program. Secretary of State Debra Bowen is leading a MyVote student mock election program for 2014.

The Stanislaus County Office of Education will again hold a Project Citizen program, designed for classes but now mostly taken on by after-school programs, said district coordinator Danielle Jones.

“Students identify a community need, then do research on that,” she said. “What they often find is there is an existing policy; it just isn’t working very well. The students create a new policy and an action plan to make it happen. Once they get to that point, then they want to go to the school board and present their findings.”

The goal is to help students go from complaining to doing. “It’s really teaching them about the process,” Jones said.

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