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Citizenship education needs an upgrade

Many Americans are unhappy with the election outcome; even more were disgusted with the campaign. Where were intelligent discussions of the country's challenges? Two week's before the election, the three big TV networks (ABC, CBS and NBC) this year had devoted only 32 minutes combined on their evening newscasts to policy coverage. Clearly, the public wasn't hungering for anything requiring hard knowledge; it was easier to talk about walls and e-mail servers.

Schools share the blame. One survey found that college students could more readily identify Kim Kardashian than Joe Biden. No college may be able to change that, but it is possible to better equip Marylanders for citizenship. As Thomas Jefferson argued, a functioning democracy needs an electorate thinking clearly about public issues. The Every Student Succeeds Act that replaced the No Child Left Behind law gives Maryland the power to reexamine its adherence to the Common Core and the tests that they spawned. The states should take the opportunity to upgrade citizenship education.

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A course in civics by itself is no solution; all required high school courses need examination. Start by considering high school mathematics, one pillar of the Common Core and a subject that drives many students (and their parents) to distraction. It filters out otherwise capable youngsters from college.

What would math for citizenship cover? Our high school graduates should be able to understand income inequality. Learning how to interpret graphs and charts that represent wage stagnation should precede pre-calculus. Understanding the words and numbers that describe the economy will be more useful than understanding similar triangles in evaluating the new administration's tax reform proposals.

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Literacy, coupled with critical thinking, is the second pillar of the much derided Common Core. Studying the documents important to our democracy — the Declaration of Independence and Lincoln's Gettysburg address — should be mandatory. Students should critically think about political speeches and debates and what appears on social media. They could compare modern political speech to Shakespeare's Marc Antony asking Romans to lend him their ears.

Ask those who explain science to the public what an informed citizen needs to know about the scientific method. "Science literacy is an outlook. It's … a lens through which you observe what goes on around you," says Neil deGrasse Tyson, host of PBS's "NOVA" show. Understanding the way scientists find and challenge "truth" about climate change is more important than what is now taught in many science classes. How the theory of evolution arose and was tested is a more interesting and relevant biology lesson than learning the names of cell parts. The scientific method, coupled with critical thinking, is especially important when receiving messages that arrive via social media. Whether it is gossip about a classmate or about a presidential candidate, students should know how to evaluate sources and check on the veracity of the "news."

History and geography, traditionally social studies, provide fertile grounds. Neither remembering the names of the state capitals nor the details of the French and Indian Wars is essential. The history of slavery and immigration is. Locating Bosnia on a map is less important than understanding how ancient ethnic hatreds erupted after hundreds of years of peaceful coexistence — and what that means for a divided United States. Economics is politically crucial, yet, the economic history of the Depression is often ignored. That story is relevant to infrastructure policy in the Trump administration.

High school curriculum calls for thinkers from beyond academe. For past decades college faculty were the primary source on what was needed for "college and career." In practice the goal was preparing students for college — often for courses faculty were already teaching. Universities and colleges do not have a monopoly on wisdom as shown by students at prestigious institutions of higher education asserting "there is no difference between the two major candidates."

Trent Lott and Tom Daschle, previous Senate leaders, warned in an article last year that we are in a "downward political spiral"; the 2016 campaign proved them right. They and others experienced in the political arena should be asked what schools can do to reverse the spiral. Historians, whether or not they hold academic positions, can provide insights. Those in the media who understand how to reconcile their need for audience with the audience's need for unbiased information can share.

Today, many voters don't know that welfare rolls are down; some holler "keep the government's hands off our Medicare"; and few know what productivity or free trade means. This is a weak foundation for representative democracy in the 21st Century.

Change high school curricula to improve the 2020 campaign and beyond. The 2016 presidential campaign demonstrated vividly how many Americans come to the marketplace of political ideas without the currency they should have acquired in high school. Remember, 18-year olds can vote. Start now.

Arnold Packer is the retired chair of the SCANS 2000 Center at the Institute for Policy Studies at the Johns Hopkins University. He also served as assistant secretary of labor in the Carter Administration and is chief economist of the U.S. Senate Budget Committee. His email is arnold.packer@gmail.com.

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