In his State of the City Address this year, Mayor de Blasio called for measures to “protect and reinforce our battered democracy,” including a new “Civics for All” initiative in the city schools. All good — but into the pro-democracy mix, Team de Blasio should add one little idea that’s catching on across the country: have high-school students pass the same citizenship exam given to immigrants.
Civics education — teaching basic principles of American democracy — has been declining for decades but seems to have worsened lately. Last year, the Annenberg Public Policy Center found that four in 10 Americans can’t name one right guaranteed under the First Amendment; three-quarters can’t name all three branches of government.
Educators will tell you history and civics have been pushed aside, devalued by an all-consuming focus on STEM: science, technology, engineering and math. James Basker, president of the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, surmises that our “civic and historical illiteracy” is one reason our politics has become so toxic. “We’re a democracy. We cannot survive without a population that has a competent knowledge of American history and that cares about it enough to participate.”
Fortunately, the smash-hit musical “Hamilton” (and the education work surrounding it by the Gilder Lehrman Institute) are helping turn the tide. The city has also launched a new Passport to Social Studies K–8 curriculum — receiving good reviews from teachers and principals.
“Civics for All” includes a new curriculum, resources addressing current events, professional development for teachers and a pilot participatory-budgeting effort allowing high-school students to direct the spending of $2,000.
Alongside these laudable efforts, the de Blasio administration should consider adding the citizenship exam.
With its Regents exam, New York is one of the few states in the nation requiring a test in American history for high-school graduation. And there’s little appetite for more testing.
But the citizenship exam isn’t a standardized test; and it can be given in 20 minutes. It comprises 100 straightforward questions: What is the Bill of Rights? How many US senators are there? What did the Emancipation Proclamation do?
Immigrants are given 10 of these questions and must get at least six correct to pass; 92 percent do. Yet a Xavier University study showed that a third of native-born citizens can’t pass the exam.
The nonprofit Joe Foss Institute campaigns for all 50 states to enact legislation making passing the citizenship exam a requirement for high-school graduation; 27 states have done so in the past three years.
The full 100-question citizenship exam is on the Foss Institute Web site. A hard-copy version can be downloaded or the exam can be taken online. If students get a question wrong or want more information, they click on a video explaining the correct answer.
Some educators argue that the citizenship exam is simplistic and doesn’t foster complex understanding of American history and governance. That’s true. But why not take a bit of class time to ensure that all students can meet this rock-bottom level of civic knowledge?
Constitution Day is Monday, commemorating when delegates to the Constitutional Convention met for the last time to sign the document they created. Because it falls in September, Constitution Day presents a great opportunity to frame the discussion for the rest of the school year around the ideals in our founding documents: the moments in our history when we’ve moved closer to them and further away.
So perhaps a new plank could be added to de Blasio’s civics initiative, encouraging history teachers to use this day to give the citizenship exam, review the answers and reflect on what it means to be a citizen.
After all, if we are to ever live out the true meaning of our creed, students first must know it exists.
Charles Sahm is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.