Fake news sites are only the latest trend prompting teachers to join a statewide effort aimed at educating students about how to engage with government.
The next generation of voters show “a dismaying inability” to tell the difference between online advertisements and legitimate news stories, according to a study of nearly 8,000 middle, high school and college students released last week by Stanford University.
“Overall, young people’s ability to reason about the information on the internet can be summed up in one word: bleak,” the researchers said. “In every case and at every level, we were taken aback by students’ lack of preparation.”
The findings were no surprise to social studies teachers in Washington, who will ask the 2017 legislature pass an initiative dramatically boosting civics education statewide.
Between high-stakes testing and a growing emphasis on the so-called STEM subjects — science, technology, engineering and math — education about the workings of government has been reduced to an afterthought, said Margaret Fisher, a law professor at Seattle University who is leading the effort.
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Moreover, the civics education that does exist varies widely in quality from school to school.
Carinna Tarvin, a National Board Certified social studies teacher said even she would benefit from deeper training and a more coherent approach.
“Social studies in this state is all over the place. Districts all do different things. Last year, I had to teach civics, and we didn’t even have textbooks,” Tarvin said. “I was just kind of winging it.”
The district-to-district discrepancies are particularly concerning to Fisher.
“Middle- and upper middle-class kids tend to get quality programs,” she said. “Our special priority is youth of color, rural and immigrant and refugee groups. There are some high quality programs in Washington, but the percentage of students that get access to them is very small.”
Fisher and her team plan to ask the legislature for $250,000, some of which would be used to give teachers better training in civics education and expand it to middle- and elementary schools.
“Knowing the three branches of government and how many stripes are on the flag doesn’t teach you how to be a citizen, how to participate and be a critical consumer of the news,” said Anthony Jonas, a social studies teacher in Bellevue who co-chairs the Washington State Council for the Social Studies.
He would like to see the basic foundation — for instance, how to talk through differing viewpoints — set in elementary or middle school. Then media literacy and assessing the quality of information.
“I’d like to see kids evaluating politicians and what they’re doing, and applying knowledge — not just memorizing facts from 240 years ago,” Jonas said. “This feeling has been bubbling for a while, but the election really pushed people to see that education can’t just be all about STEM.”