Developing Civic Competence in Students by k3FrCv


									Kristine Bryer
Social Studies Methods
Professor Eileen Burke Heddy
December 10, 2005

                  Developing Civic Competence in Students

       Recently, there has been growing concern that schools are not doing

enough to foster civic competence in the future leaders of our country. A recent

study of Generations X and Y suggest that members of these groups are less

informed about public affairs and are generally less interested in participating in

politics than the generations before them. They also displayed a lack of

understanding of what it means to be a citizen in a democratic society,

emphasizing the rights of citizens rather than the responsibilities. The study cited

the findings of the 1998 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP)

that 75% of high school seniors were not proficient in civics. (Soule, 2001)

According to those concerned, civic education is not given sufficient attention at

the elementary, middle and high school levels. Civic education is often relegated

to the fringes of school life, with reading and math occupying the majority of the

school day. In some cases it is not taught at all. (Quigley, 2005) (Branson, 2004)

Schools must reverse this trend and develop techniques and strategies to raise

the level of civic competence in today’s students.

       Before discussing possible strategies and techniques schools should use

for developing civic competence, it is necessary to agree on a definition of civic

competence. While researching this topic, I found that there are several opinions

on this definition. Some define civic competence narrowly to include knowledge

of government structure and functions and participation in the political process

with acts such as voting. Others expand the definition to include participation in

less obvious political actions, such as community service. (Youniss, Bales,

Christmas-Best, Diversi, McLaughlin & Silbereisen, 2002)         I base my definition

on the three essential components Margaret Stimmann Branson ascribes to

effective civic education. To have civic competence means that a person has

civic knowledge, civic skills and a civic disposition. (Branson, 2004) Civic

knowledge includes: knowledge of our country’s history and important events that

shaped that history; knowledge of the purposes of government and the

constitution through which those purposes are carried out; an understanding of

how our democracy works and why it is important to be an active participant in

that democracy; and basically an understanding of what it means to be a good

citizen. Civic skills include both critical thinking and participatory skills. The

ability to identify, describe, explain, analyze and evaluate political issues based

on civic knowledge are important critical thinking skills. Deliberation,

communication and persuasion skills are important participatory skills. Finally,

civic disposition includes not only participating in the political process by voting,

but also the inclination toward being patriotic, protecting civil rights of one’s

fellow citizens and engaging in community service activities. (Branson, 2004)

       The idea that schools play a significant role in preparing young people to

be competent and responsible participants in our system of self-government has

been a longstanding belief in our country. (Quigley, 2004) Recent studies

support this belief. Civic education increases civic and political knowledge which

results in increased civic engagement. Students who have taken courses in

American government see their role in improving society and have a better

understanding of what it means to be a good citizen. These students are also

more likely to vote, monitor and stay informed about public issues, and contact

officials about an issue that concerns them. (Quigley, 2004) Teachers play a

tremendous role in the effect of this education. The attitudes and emphasis of

the teacher on subjects such as voting and elections, was found to be a

significant predictor of the likelihood of his or her students voting. (Tourney-Purta,


        “Theories of knowledge suggest that what one learns and remembers

depends on what one already knows. Once a particular fact is learned, this

knowledge serves as a context for new information- the hook upon which

additional facts become caught.” (Soule, 2001) One strategy that I would

recommend based on my research in general and the above quote in particular,

would be to implement a separate unit of instruction on civics and government at

each grade level to ensure the development of civic knowledge. I agree that

social studies in general can often be a subject that is squeezed into the

curriculum. I witnessed this during my student teaching in Trenton. Although

time is short and it may not be possible to add another subject like civics on top

of the current social studies curriculum, it would be beneficial to at least include a

unit of study on civics every year. In this way students are not losing the

opportunities to make connections between topics, so that when they get to

eighth grade they have an understanding of how all the pieces fit together. For

example, maybe it would be better not to wait to introduce the workings of the

federal government in seventh grade, when the students last discussed state

government in third grade. The civics courses or units should include instruction

on history, the law, how government operates and how to actively participate in

government. It should include instruction on how the students fit into their

community, both the school community and the larger communities of the town,

state, and country. By separating civics from other social studies issues, civic

knowledge and participation will be interpreted by the students as having


       In teaching civics, instruction should be student-centered instead of

teacher-centered. Instruction should include discussion of current events and

debating and role-playing activities. Discussion of current events should include

controversial issues and should be part of the instruction at every grade level.

Younger students can choose something of interest from the weekly reader

magazines. I recall as a child being required to bring in newspaper stories every

Monday from about third grade on up. Based on the experience of these

assignments I made a habit of at least checking the paper for topics that were of

interest to me. Students can take the controversial issues they discuss or

historical controversial issues and debate them or role play to get a better

understanding that there are always two sides to an argument. To effectively

implement all these activities, a teacher must create a safe classroom climate

that encourages discussion and expression of opinion. (Tourney-Purta, 2002)

In this way not only is content knowledge enhanced, but also critical thinking,

communications and debating skills are developed.

       Students should have the opportunity to take part in simulations of

democratic processes and procedures such as legislative, administrative and

judicial hearings. (Quigley, 2005) These simulations allow students to

demonstrate their knowledge and understanding and make the instruction more

meaningful. Participation in programs such as We the People- The Citizen and

the Constitution and We the People- Project Citizen sponsored by The Center for

Civic Education are examples of ways to make such opportunities available, as

are participation in mock trial programs. Mock elections within the school also

should be incorporated and should be connected to elections that are actually

taking place, such as the Presidential, Gubernatorial or even the school budget.

Students should also be encouraged to identify social and political issues that are

of particular concern them. After researching the issue, students should learn

how to make their opinions known to the appropriate officials and should be

given the opportunities to write letters or e-mails to those officials.

       Strategies outside of a specific civics curriculum can also go a long way in

fostering civic competence, especially if a civics curriculum is not in place. I

interviewed two teachers in researching this topic. Mrs. Corsa retired over

twenty years ago and Mrs. Pieper is currently teaching middle social studies to

fifth and sixth graders. Both teachers mentioned the importance of teaching

students responsibility for themselves and others. From the earliest grades

students should have classroom jobs and be taught to respect others property,

bodies and feelings. Tolerance for others should also be stressed. Mrs. Pieper,

remembers having an actual grade for citizenship on the report cards. This

grade included feedback on how well a student got along with other students and

cooperated with the teacher. Although recently phased out, she felt this was a

great technique to use in developing future responsible citizens and I have to

agree. Mrs. Pieper also mentioned the success of school wide programs on

bullying and the current Character Counts program. The Character Counts

program has been through changes over the years, but the core of it is to

encourage good citizenship both inside and outside of the school. Use of

cooperative groups was also recommended by Mrs. Pieper. By participating in

cooperative groups, students develop both their critical thinking skills as well as

their social skills. These groups give them the opportunity to participate in

negotiations, lobbying, coalition building and seeking consensus or compromise.

To help encourage patriotism, both teachers talked about the Pledge of

Allegiance and singing patriotic songs at school.

       Other ways to develop civic competence would be to encourage students

to get involved with student council, community service projects and school

clubs. Student council involvement gives students the hands on experience of

having an impact on their own school. Community service projects endorsed by

the school should be meaningful to the students but not student-centered. By this

I mean the students should not take away from the experience that people

volunteer only to make themselves feel better, but that they volunteer to make

the world a better place for the greater good. Research has indicated that

participation of members of Generation X and Y in community service activities is

high, however most participate out of self interest without thought to greater

political or social goals. (Boyte, 1991) ( Soule, 2001) To prevent this “all about

me” perspective, projects need to highlight the impact the project has on the

community. Participation in clubs, besides teaching students social skills, also

increases the likelihood of civic engagement later in life. (Soule, 2001)

       The last strategy I would like to mention is simply to keep students in

school as many years as possible. There is a “strong positive relationship

between political knowledge and levels of education. “ (Soule, 2001) This not

only impacts the individual, but extends to the individual’s children. Civic

knowledge is higher in youth with well-educated and affluent parents. (Hart &

Atkins, 2002). The parent/child relationship is vital to ensuring civic competence.

In researching this topic I asked four friends, whom I consider to meet the

definition of civic competence, why they are so civically active and aware.

Although they mentioned some positive aspects of their education, all four

pointed to the modeling provided by their parents and family activities. I would

have to agree. My parents were both children of immigrants to this country.

Civic participation was important to both my parents and grandparents and they

passed this message on to me.

       Schools are only one component in developing the civic competence of

the next generation. However, it may be the only positive component for some

children. Schools can help their students overcome the obstacles of poverty and

poor parental models by providing a solid civic education. This will give the

current and future generations the foundation and tools they need to be the new

leaders in our democracy.


Boyte, H. C. (1991). Turning on youth to politics. The Nation, May 13, 1991,

Branson, M.S. (2004). Education for informed, effective, and committed
      democratic citizenship: A keynote address to the Workshop Educating
      Youth for Active Citizenship, December 11, 2004. Retrieved December 7,
      2005 from the World Wide Web:

Hart, D. & Atkins, R. (2002). Civic competence in urban youth. Applied
       Developmental Science, 6 (1), 227-236. Retrieved December 7, 2005
       from EBSCO Host database (Masterfile) on the World Wide Web:

Quigley, C.N. (2004). The status of civic education: Making the case for
      a national movement. A presentation at the Second Annual
      Congressional Conference on Civic Education, December 5, 2004.
      Retrieved December 7, 2005 from the World Wide Web:

Quigley, C.N. (2005) The civic mission of schools: What constitutes an
      effective civic education? Speech delivered at the Education for
      Democracy: The Civic Mission of the School, September 20, 2005.
      Retrieved December 7, 2005 from the World Wide Web:

Soule, S. (2001). Will they engage? Political knowledge, participation and
       attitudes of generations X and Y. Retrieved December 7, 2005 from the
       World Wide Web:

Tourney-Purta, J. (2002). The school’s role in developing civic engagement:
      A study of adolescents in twenty-eight countries. Applied Developmental
      Science, 6 (4), 203-212. Retrieved December 7, 2005 from EBSCO Host
      database (Masterfile) on the World Wide Web:

Youniss, J., Bales, S., Christmas-Best, V., Diversi, M., McLaughlin, M. &
      Silbereisen. (2002). Youth civic engagement in the twenty-first century.
      Journal of Research on Adolescence, 12 (1), 121-148. Retrieved
      December 7, 2005 from EBSCO Host database (Masterfile) on the World
      Wide Web:


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