OPINION: Civics education in Georgia will erode if state eliminates testing

“Civics education -- or what was once termed citizenship -- has taken a back seat in public education,” says Randell Trammell, CEO of the State YMCA of Georgia and founder of the Georgia Center for Civic Engagement.
“Civics education -- or what was once termed citizenship -- has taken a back seat in public education,” says Randell Trammell, CEO of the State YMCA of Georgia and founder of the Georgia Center for Civic Engagement.



Has citizenship education fallen victim to narrowing of curriculum?

In 2016, Georgia lawmakers reduced the number of mandatory standardized tests from 32 to 24, eliminating the science and social studies exams from third, fourth, sixth and seventh grades. Georgia's exam level still exceeds the 17 required by federal law, though, and State School Superintendent Richard Woods has pledged to pare down testing further.

Randell Trammell, CEO of the State YMCA of Georgia and founder of the Georgia Center for Civic Engagement, is concerned that social studies may again be where testing is eliminated.

In a guest column today, Trammell says the Georgia Center for Civic Engagement’s mission is to educate and equip students to become informed and active citizens. Social studies classes are critical to laying the foundation of an informed citizenry, he says. When a subject is no longer a tested priority, Trammell says it becomes less of a priority overall.

Trammell created the Civic Engagement Diploma Seal program for the Georgia Department of Education; it  recognizes students for civic involvement and knowledge.

I asked GaDOE about how Woods planned to further reduce testing, particularly affecting social studies.

A spokeswoman said:

Superintendent Woods has advocated for years for getting high-stakes assessment requirements closer to the federal minimum – in high school, for example, we give twice the number of tests required by federal law. We have had preliminary discussions with legislators in advance of the 2020 session, but prior to the start of the session, there aren't exact details to provide on which assessments would be impacted.

Superintendent Woods was a social studies teacher for many years and is an advocate for social studies and civics education. We've placed a strong emphasis on social studies instruction at the Department, including the development of a Civic Engagement Diploma Seal for high school students. We also hear consistent and urgent concerns from teachers, parents, community members, and students themselves – including at the Governor's listening sessions this fall – about the negative impacts on learning caused by excessive high-stakes testing.

We do not believe high-stakes testing is required to emphasize the importance of a content area or course, or that the overall high-stakes testing movement has had a positive impact on teaching and learning. We are working to pursue a balanced educational system that emphasizes student learning over testing – and we are firm believers that it's the teacher, not the test, that makes a difference.

WIth that background, here is Trammell’s column.

By Randell E. Trammell

The Presidential Election of 2016 was one of the most contentious in recent history—at least in my mind. All elections have ups and downs, but it seems like with this last election all civility was tossed out the window. Of course what has ensued post-Inauguration proves that the two political parties are seemingly farther apart than ever. There remains an ever increasing tension in the air that hangs low like the thick humidity of the long summer days in Georgia.

With all of the partisan politics, have we lost our identity as Americans, who live in the Home of the Brave and in the Land of the Free? Recently I noticed a neighborhood church sign that observed, “The Left Wing and The Right Wing are attached to the same bird!” During the weeks and months that followed September 11, 2001, remember how good it felt when we all waved the same grand ole flag—not one that was liberal or conservative.

If we look past the present and into the future, our youth will take the reins of leadership and will be steering our Democracy. What example are we providing for them? Are we teaching them the values of thoughtful debate and negotiation rather than party line votes?

Are we teaching them that our elected representatives at all levels can’t find a single strand common ground upon which to build? Unfortunately, if we were to bet our future on the answer to these questions, our fate as a Republic is ominous at best.

Dr. Randell E. Trammell
Dr. Randell E. Trammell

Civics education -- or what was once termed citizenship -- has taken a back seat in public education. What once was a cornerstone of the student academic experience is no longer a top 10 priority—sadly, it doesn’t even make the priority list.

We have many exceptional educators who invest much time, energy, and love into our children, and I fully support our men and women who stand before students each day and teach them.

But citizenship education has fallen victim to what has been termed as a narrowing of the curriculum. Yes, there are civic strands throughout the entire K-12 Georgia Standards of Excellence, but they have certainly taken a back seat.

Now in Georgia, it comes under attack again as we find that our state school superintendent’s primary legislative priority for the upcoming session is to reduce the testing load to align with federally mandated minimum testing standards. In short, the majority of the tests that were proposed for cut are those for social studies.

Fifth-grade teachers at a recent workshop bemoaned the fact that students had very little knowledge or understanding of government from their prior K through 4th grade classes.

Unfortunately, when it is no longer a tested priority, school districts will stop funding professional development in those subject areas—and it becomes even less of a priority.

I’m sure there’s very few of us who enjoy standardized testing. Sure, we all are anxious about them. But without a measuring stick, how do we know we’re growing? My wife and I have two preschool-aged children, which means we’re at the pediatrician’s office enough to have frequent flyer miles. Every time we visit—even if just days apart from the previous visit—the nurses dutifully record their height and weight. Why is that? Because if we don’t measure these important items, we will never know if they are on target.

How can we expect our students to grow into responsible citizens if they aren’t given the tools to be educated and equipped to do so? What then becomes of our great nation? There are few examples of what authentic civic engagement should look like so that our children can emulate it as they are developing their own civic identity. We invest little educational ‘seat time’ in teaching students the tenets of citizenship so there is a gap in civic knowledge. What then are we left with?

Founding father Thomas Jefferson once said, “The qualifications for self-government are not innate. They are the result of habit and long training.” We must be stewards of our great Democracy by investing in teaching our children how it works through civic education and demonstrating it to them by our example. There is simply too much at stake to leave it on autopilot and hope for the best.

Is there a path forward? Absolutely, and the timing is critical. We must reject the notion that the social Studies and civics are subjects that can be relegated to electives or to second-class priority.

The path forward requires that we renew our efforts and emphasis on citizenship education. Financial resources must be invested in updated curricula and resources, educators must embrace an interactive pedagogical approach to the (sometimes seemingly stale) content, and we must once again demonstrate how to accomplish meaningful and substantive policy in the public forum.

Civic engagement is more than watching Fox News, CNN, or your favorite political commentator. It is more than donning a bumper sticker on your car. It is more than voting. Though all of these are a part of it. Civic engagement comes back to community, to neighborhood watch, to the local PTA. It brings us back to volunteering at the local park clean up, reading to elementary school students, or volunteering as a mentor through the YMCA. It brings us back to the place where we can talk about differing ideas with our neighbors without fear of judgement or worse.

Civic engagement brings us back to what we have in common—this great country America. America, the beautiful: the Land of the Free, and the Home of the Brave.

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