By Emily Wilkins, CQ Roll Call
During the 2016 elections, as Russia ramped up a campaign of misinformation, Americans were bombarded with fabricated articles on social media sites claiming Pope Francis had endorsed Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton had sold weapons to ISIS.
Then they clicked “share.”
In the aftermath of the election, fake news had confused two-thirds of citizens to the point where they were unsure about the facts of current events, according to a Pew Research Center survey in December.
Kids are equally duped — nearly a third of middle and high school students have shared a news story on social media, only to later realize it was false, according to a study from Common Sense Media, a nonprofit organization focused on media and children.
Education advocates are concerned that part of the problem lies in a shrinking amount of time and emphasis on civics education. Federal and state testing policies have encouraged teachers to focus more on math and reading. Only a small fraction of federal education funding currently goes to advancing civics, and even that isn’t included in the White House’s proposed fiscal 2018 budget.
“A part of effective civic learning has always been how to spot propaganda and not fall for it,” says Ted McConnell, executive director for the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools, an organization of 60 groups advocating for more civics education in schools.
“We are more vulnerable given the proliferation of news outlets,” he says. “We are more vulnerable to fake news than ever before.”
Of course, the benefits of civics education extend beyond spotting a fake news story and into basic roles for a citizen in a democracy. There was a strong correlation between those who got involved in the 2012 election and those who had a quality civics education in high school, according to a 2013 study at Tufts University’s Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement.
And when it comes to determining who will engage in their communities, what students learn in school and their extracurricular activities had more of an impact than their race or grades, and were about as important as where they lived and influences from their family.
Yet schools have downgraded the importance of civics for decades. Between 1987 and 2003, the amount of time spent on social studies declined 18 hours per year, according to a Thomas B. Fordham Institute study using data from the Education Department. Less than a quarter of eighth-graders are proficient in civics and the average student can’t explain benefits of the U.S. working with other countries, or fill in a chart on checks and balances in the government.
“It does seem to be that we’re at a turning point here in our democracy, and that tending to how our schools deal with this needs to be one thing on the to-do list,” says Maria Ferguson, executive director of the Center on Education Policy, which conducts research in public education at George Washington University. “It’s made people think a little bit more about what it takes to maintain a democracy like we have in this country.”
Former Education Secretary John B. King Jr., who has taught social studies, urges schools and colleges to do more to help educate students to make more informed decisions.
“Educating our students about their role in democracy was one of the original goals of public education in this country. And it should remain so today as our nation becomes more and more diverse,” he told a crowd at the National Press Club several weeks before Election Day. “Right now, it is clear that our schools and colleges must do more to meet that goal.”
But it’s been difficult for schools and teachers to prioritize social studies as federal testing requirements have focused on math and reading. Both No Child Left Behind, which became law in 2002, and its 2015 successor, the Every Student Succeeds Act, require math and reading testing annually in third though eighth grade, and once again in high school. Science tests are also required three times between the third grade and high school graduation. Social studies and history are not mentioned.
Lawmakers have put an emphasis on reading and math as a way to prepare students for the workplace, says Peter Levine, associate dean at the College of Civic Life at Tufts University.
“The main issues for policymakers have been economic,” he says. “The people who are interested in prosperity and productivity say our students aren’t ready for the 21st century, they can’t do the work that corporations need. The equity people say it’s terribly unfair that people from poor backgrounds are not able to get good jobs or go to college. That has turned into a very relentless focus on reading, math and science as predictors of economic success.”
It has also led to teachers prioritizing those subjects over history. In 2010, 45 percent of teachers said No Child Left Behind led to a decreased focus on social studies, according to a study from the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank. Two years later, a study funded in part by the American Federation of Teachers, which usually aligns with Democrats, also found two-thirds of teachers felt subjects such as social studies had taken a back seat to reading and math.
But it’s not just federal government initiatives that are responsible. While all 50 states require civics classes before graduation from high school, only 17 states include civics and social studies in their accountability systems, according to the Education Commission of the States.
“Many states require an assessment for social studies, but very few of the states have any accountability tied to those assessments,” says Paul Baumann, director of the National Center for Learning and Civic Engagement with the Education Commission of the States. “It’s easier for me as school administrator to say, ‘I know my kids will have to take this test, but it really doesn’t show up on a report card for our schools. So we’re gonna focus on those areas where those report cards are required.’”
Citizenship at Purdue University. While 15 states now require high school students to pass a U.S. citizenship test before graduating, it’s not a reliable indication that someone understands governing basics.
“When you think about testing civics from a multiple choice, standardized testing platform, you’re really distilling it down to historical facts, which is not what civics is about,” she says. “Civics is about active citizenship and understanding your role in the community and the democracy.”
What is needed, according to Murphy-Kline and other advocates, is more interactive methods of teaching civics.
Lawmakers agree. The Every Student Succeeds Act contains two different programs to promote civics education in the classroom and to provide additional instruction to students and teachers. One program awards grants to create academies at which students can attend sessions to learn more about the Constitution, Bill of Rights and American history. The academies can also provide teachers professional development and training in the subject area. Another program provides grants to organizations to develop curriculums for civics education.
Neither program is particularly large. Each was funded for the first time in April and received less than $2 million. The funding is not currently in the White House’s fiscal 2018 budget proposal.
There’s a chance this was simply an administrative oversight, McConnell says. At a committee hearing with Education Secretary Betsy DeVos in May, the top education appropriator in the House, Oklahoma Republican Tom Cole, said several programs that the department appeared to leave out weren’t funded until April. Since the department had to craft its budget proposal using funding levels from the continuing resolution passed at the end of last year, the programs weren’t included, as Congress had not yet funded them.