written by Todd Beach

 

Late last week, Governor Mark Dayton contacted the president of the Minnesota Council for the Social Studies, asking her to solicit members for their positions on proposed legislation requiring all students to pass a Civics or Citizenship test in order to receive their high school diploma.  The following is my letter.

 

Dear Governor Dayton,

I write to express my position on the bill before the legislature, requiring students to pass a Citizenship Test in order to graduate from a Minnesota high school.

Ever since the first NCLB requirements and high-stakes testing in reading, mathematics, and science became policy; curriculum has narrowed in an effort by teachers and schools to meet the needs of the tests, not the learners.

From the time public schools were required to frequently test the

aforementioned subjects, schools have responded by giving less and less attention to the Social Studies than at any time before in our history. Therefore it is disappointing that many fail to see the cause – effect relationships of

Elementary students in a library classroom

policy as it applies to teaching and learning in the Social Studies. Instead, a bill is before the Legislature asking for more testing.

Last month at the Minnesota Council for Social Studies annual conference, Representative Dean Urdahl held a question and answer session devoted to the bill he authored. He started the meeting with a video of college students at Texas Tech University who were being interviewed by what appeared to be another college student asking peers basic questions of American history such as who won the Civil War? Of course the responses selected for the video revealed students lacking knowledge of our nation’s essential history – gotcha! Let me also state the obvious that showing a video of cherry-picked responses does not qualify as thoughtful and corroborated research.

At the session, I asked Representative Urdahl, “What studies have been conducted in Minnesota as it relates to the civics knowledge of our students?” His response was that he wasn’t aware of ANY studies that have been conducted.

Will a Citizenship Test help our students better understand the value tension between unity and diversity that exists in our country? Will the test help students better understand the tension between law and ethics? Between freedom and equality? Will the test help our students understand how to find balance between the needs of our private wealth and our common wealth? As a citizen and a Civics educator, I think teaching students how to navigate these tensions is essential.

IMG_1540As I watch the current political drama that is the 2016 Presidential race, I keep thinking how the candidates are modeling behavior that is not in line with what the majority of citizens would characterize as ‘civil discourse’ – and our students are watching and learning. Will the Citizenship Test help our students better understand how to frame an argument and learn how to disagree without being disagreeable? Of course the answer is no, because being a citizen is far more complex, important, and personal than the choices of A, B, C, or D.

A former professor of mine often stated that you have two choices; “you can be a subject, or a citizen.”[1] Being a subject implies that you want someone else to have authority over you and your choices, whereas being a citizen involves your active participation with the established authority.

It seems to me that the Citizenship Test likens our students to becoming subjects. Subject to the test you can receive a diploma. Subject to the test, you have demonstrated that you are a true American citizen. The demonstration of knowledge via the Citizenship Test is a narrow and wrong-headed measure of what it means to be an American citizen.IMG_1054

You engage as a citizen in many areas of your life. You are a citizen of your family, your classroom, your school, your neighborhood, your community, your church, your state, your nation, and our world. You demonstrate your love of each through active participation, through discourse and argument, through rightful behavior, and by being a loving critic.

For 17 of my 28 years as an educator, I have taught American Government and Citizenship to 9th graders where we learn the history of our country’s beginnings including the essential documents that brought our nation to life and shaped the three branches of our government with its essential system of checks and balances.  We work through simulations of how a bill becomes a law in the classroom by students thinking of ways to improve our school, community, state, and country. We engage in civil discourse and argue about our proposals. We are actively learning to become loving critics of the institutions to which we belong. Students write policy papers weighing the real versus the ideal in the world where they will soon be leaders. These are activities which members of our community expect in our schools versus the rote memorization necessary to pass the Citizenship Test to “prove” our worth to state and country.

I have a Bachelor’s degree in Social Studies education, a Master’s degree in ConstitutionCurriculum and Instruction, and a Doctorate in Teaching, Learning, and Assessment. In addition to being a practicing teacher, I am the Lead Teacher in the Social Studies for our school district where together we are responsible for the education of over 29,000 students. I am also a Lecturer at the University of Minnesota where I teach graduate students who will become the next generation of Social Studies teachers for our state.

I believe there are many practices, which our Social Studies teachers could improve, but I do not believe the Citizenship Test is a means to better teaching and learning.

In my course at the University of Minnesota over the past few years, Justices Alan Page and G. Barry Anderson of the Minnesota Supreme Court have given their time to speak with our students on the subject of citizenship and the importance of Social Studies education. And, former Secretary of State Mark Ritchie has also addressed the class offering his advice and reverence to the work these future educators are about to undertake. Please know you have an open invitation to speak with these future Social Studies teachers as well.

I am happy to speak with you further on any of the thoughts contained in this letter, or any matters of education policy. But for now, please know that I am completely against the proposed Citizenship Test.

Respectfully,

Todd Beach, Ed.D.

Minnesota Council for the Social Studies Teacher of the Year 2010

Lecturer in Social Studies Education, University of Minnesota

[1] The Idea of America, Hartoonian, et. al. (2012)