Education Brief, OrlandoSentinel
March 15, 2010
"More civics education needed, advocates say"
Florida lawmakers are listening and may require more classes — and testing — on the subject
By Leslie Postal, Orlando Sentinel
More than a decade ago, Florida social-studies teachers started lobbying to make their subject part of a statewide testing program. If it wasn't, they feared, then classes in civics, geography and history would be shoved aside in favor of tested subjects such as math and reading.
Their fears were well-founded. Today, the time to devoted to such courses has been cut, and social studies is often the class interrupted when everything from school pictures to career days needs scheduling.
But now some state lawmakers are supporting these advocates, as the Legislature considers making civics a required — and tested — subject.
Florida's "civic health," they say, is among the worst in the nation. And, to combat that, school kids need a regular dose of lessons on government, civic responsibility and key historical documents such as the Declaration of Independence.
It is a high-profile and bipartisan effort that mirrors national civic-education drives but is also controversial and very similar to efforts that failed previously.
The "Justice Sandra Day O'Connor Civics Education Act" bills (SB 1096, HB 105) would make civics a required seventh-grade course and civics the subject of a new high-stakes, middle-school test. The Senate bill also would make "civics-related content" a required part of language-arts materials for all grade levels.
Eventually, students would have to pass the new statewide civics test to be promoted out of middle school, and schools' annual A-to-F grades would be based in part on those civic test scores.
"I think this is an investment that, frankly, the state needs to make," said former U.S. Rep. Lou Frey, an Orlando attorney. "When you're as bad off as we are in Florida, we've got to take steps to make a difference."
Frey, a Republican, teamed up four years ago with Democrat Bob Graham, a former Florida governor and U.S. senator, to promote civics education in Florida.
"It's amazing how people don't know what our government is," Frey said.
The Florida Joint Center for Citizenship issued its second "civic health index" last fall, reporting that "Florida has a weak civic culture … one of the worst in the nation."
Floridians are ranked low when it comes to voting, volunteering and taking part in community meetings, the report found. Frey said education is key to changing that, meaning that civics lessons cannot be an "afterthought" and must be part of state testing program.
Bills similar to the ones proposed this year died in 2008 and 2009. Last year's bill failed despite high-profile help from O'Connor, as the former Supreme Court justice spoke to the Florida Legislature touting the need for more civics education.
This year's proposals have critics, too, who worry about the cost and the new testing requirements.
"It's positive, and it has problems," said Ted Banton, president of the Florida Association of Social Studies Supervisors, who works in the St. Johns County School District.
Social-studies advocates started pushing for their courses to be part of a state testing program — and at one point part of the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test — in 1998. And they still want that, Banton said.
But they want a "sane" plan, arguing it is too much for middle school to make scores on a standardized exam count for 30 percent of a final course grade and be required for promotion.
There is no argument, he said, that "social studies — not only statewide, but nationally — has been marginalized" to the detriment of schools' basic mission.
"Ultimately, the purpose of public education is to create an informed citizenry," Banton added.
Class time devoted to social studies has been reduced in elementary school since the FCAT started more than a decade ago, according to a survey done by a Stetson University professor in 2007. Most teachers reported spending no more than two hours a week on the subject, while 26 percent devoted no more than an hour a week — or 12 minutes a day.
Some social-studies textbooks have even been repackaged as "FCAT practice" — exhibit A for the argument that the series of state tests, with its math, reading, science and writing exams, drives instruction in Florida's classrooms.
"In a democratic republic such as ours, should the development of character, citizenship, the understanding [of] our democratic and governmental processes, of global affairs and the history of the United States and the world be de-emphasized?" wrote Patrick Coggins, a Stetson education professor and the author of the report.
Social-studies teacher Cindy Myers said that because the subject is not part of FCAT, those classes "get all the extra jobs," as the attitude is, "We can spare the time a little bit easier."
Myers, who teaches at Ocoee Middle in Orange County and is that district's social-studies teacher of the year, said civics is crucial and resonates with students.
"The kids are interested in it. They love talking about it," she added. "I think they can connect with it."
Some lawmakers, however, worry about paying for a new test, given Florida's current financial crunch.
Sen. Steve Wise, R-Jacksonville, head of the Senate education-appropriations committee, said the cost killed the bill in his committee last year. He has suggested deleting — at least temporarily — the testing requirements or substituting district-created tests for state exams.
A new standardized test, once up and running, would cost about $1.5 million a year and about $350,000 in the first year of development.
But Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice, the bill's sponsor, said the testing provision is key.
"Most of the content is already there in the Florida state statues," she said. "Civics somewhere is slipping through the cracks. That which isn't tested isn't taught."
The state adopted new social-studies standards — a blueprint for what is to be taught in schools — in 2008. The new standards, to be taught by 2012, include beefed-up civics lessons and make that subject a key part of seventh-grade social studies.
But a lack of money is hurting that effort, as there is no money to provide teachers training in the new standards, the staff of the Senate education committee acknowledged in an analysis of the civics bill.
Leslie Postal can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org  or 407-420-5273.