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A democracy without civics?

When asked, a third of eighth-graders didn't know the significance of the Declaration of Independence.

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September 17 marked the 221st anniversary of the signing of the Constitution. Students across the country spent a few minutes of their day learning about the remarkable work of our nation's founders.

This is nice, but America's schools should be doing a much more thorough job of honoring the civic mission that was the reason for their founding.

Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and one of the first advocates for public education in America, argued forcefully that schools play a crucial role in preparing the citizens of a democracy. "There is but one method of rendering a republican form of government durable," he wrote, "and that is by disseminating the seeds of virtue and knowledge through education."

With young people voting at higher rates than ever before, it might seem that the founders would be pleased with our progress. Yet civic engagement requires more than voting in presidential elections every four years. A healthy democracy demands sustained citizen participation, and our schools must give students the knowledge and tools to participate.

Sadly, civic education has been in steady decline over the past generation, as high-stakes testing and an emphasis on literacy and math dominate school reforms. Too many young people today do not understand how our political system works. They lack the tools to shape their communities through their own participation.


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