A driving force behind the establishment of public schools in America was to cultivate civic values in students.
As Horace Mann, the father of the Common School, wrote, “A republican form of government, without intelligence in the people, must be, on a vast scale, what a mad-house, without superintendent or keepers, would be, on a small one.”
The results from the 2018 National Assessment of Educational Progress showed that there is significant room for improvement in U.S. public schools. The test results showed eighth-grade students’ knowledge of history, geography, and civics did not show improvement from the 2014 results.
In fact, history scores dropped 4 percentage points since 2014 for eighth graders—a significant decline. Similarly, eighth graders’ scores in geography were significantly lower than 2014, but are not significantly different than scores in 1994. Civics scores also dropped, but not significantly.
Overall, a quarter or more of eighth graders scored below “basic” in history, geography, and civics.
“In the real world, this means students don’t know what the Lincoln-Douglas debates were about, nor can they discuss the significance of the Bill of Rights, or point out basic locations on a map. [Only] 15% of them have a reasonable knowledge of U.S. history,” Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos said, summarizing the results.
Robert Pondiscio says civics scores are lower because of an overemphasis on “action civics” in the classroom.
“’Action civics’ by definition focuses students’ attention on the bad and the broken, not on gratitude for what is good and what works. The omission is as harmful to citizen-making as the lack of common content is to basic literacy,” Pondiscio wrote in The Heritage Foundation’s book “The Not-So-Great Society,” published last year.
Families have grown frustrated with the current state of history, geography, and civics education in public schools and have turned to alternative options, such as charter schools like Great Hearts, an Arizona-based classical charter school network.
Charter schools are held accountable by families and have greater curricular autonomy than their district school peers. Great Hearts distinguishes itself by providing students with an encounter with the Great Books.
Robert Jackson, the chief academic officer of Great Hearts America, wrote in “The Not-So-Great Society,” “[Classical education] aims to provide a formative, inspiring encounter with the best recorded thoughts in history … , from which students can develop their own thoughts, abilities, and values, in preparation for their full participation in society—as members of families, neighborhoods, religious organizations, schools, businesses, and other civic and political institutions.”
In class, Great Hearts middle school students participate in roundtable discussions of classic texts, such as “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “Lord of the Flies,” and Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar.” By engaging in discussions of great works of literature, teachers hope students glean insights into human nature and cultivate good character.
The importance of Great Hearts’ emphasis on civics, reading, and Socratic discussion in the classroom likely contributes to the network’s civics success. The Nation’s Report Card history scores among students nationwide correspond with low reading scores among eighth graders.
Lower reading comprehension and a poor grasp of history have far-reaching societal implications. In fact, Adam Garfinkle, a founding editor at The American Interest, argues that the ability to read well is fundamentally linked to understanding history and good governance.
“The rewards of deep reading are cumulative over time, therefore, not only in the individual, but also in society. Deep literacy marks the birth of useful abstractions bearing profound implications for moral reasoning. As Hermann Hesse pointed out, ‘[w]ithout words, without writing, and without books there would be no history,” and so “there could be no concept of humanity,’” Garfinkle wrote in National Affairs.
He articulates what many families already know: that reading and history are important to civic life and the American republic. Unfortunately, the recent national comparison shows that the current district education system is not preparing students well.
Education, especially reading and history, is an important component of American society, and expanding educational choice is one way to improve on present results.
Expanding the education marketplace and expanding access to that marketplace through school choice would mean that more children could attend classical schools like Great Hearts, where they are challenged to pursue their best selves and a better society.