Florida Civics Teachers Unprepared to Teach Civility

June 22, 2020

By Deborah Childress

TAMPA – If you like the idea of young Floridians becoming good Americans who don’t scoot the civil protest and loot and destroy your neighborhood, you’ve come to the right place.  Civics in the classroom – outside of attentive parenting – is the doorway to good citizenship.  But in Florida, classroom civics issues abound.

It all starts with a simple question:  Can you read?

In 2016, 411 Florida civics teachers, representing 226 public schools in 45 districts, told the Lou Frey Institute that only 48.9% of their students could read at grade level.  These are middle school students who were ushered through six years of schooling not adequately capable of reading, although many civics teachers swear that civics is suffering because of “No Child Left Behind” and its focus on reading and math. 

And now, here are Florida’s children getting their first real exposure to what it means to be American – the right to speak up, the opportunity to vote, the power to protest peacefully, the joy of volunteering and helping the community, understanding the Declaration of Independence, discussing current events, debating and serving on mock trials – all of that stuff.  Is it any wonder that Lou Frey Institute’s student survey of 7,000 students in Miami-Dade, Clay, and St. Lucie counties, showed only 56% of students found it important to defend the U.S. Constitution?  For too many students, comprehending the document is practically like interpreting hieroglyphics.

How do you comprehend the Declaration of Independence – or much else for that matter – if you are 13 years old and cannot yet read to your grade level?  The Declaration, the Magna Carta – it’s all mature stuff to absorb as a kid, and Florida teachers, according to the survey, confirm they think civics education is delivering material that is in fact, too mature and too complex for the average seventh or eighth-grade student to learn.  In Florida, civics education is required, starting in middle school.  It can’t be avoided.

Couple the reading problem and “experts” who dumped too-mature civics material into the classroom with advanced vocabularies and other frailties, and you’ll see there’s a problem.  But add to these problems the fact that teachers are not trained to deliver a civics education, and you will easily see why there is room for considerable improvement in producing civil, informed students who with a little morality, can serve as good citizens. 

The Lou Frey Institute survey indicates that only 15.5% of teachers have engaged in civics-oriented activities, such as supporting political campaigns or attending groups focused on politics or current events.  Only 32.5% have been trained by a civics expert, specialist, or administrator, which means nearly 70% of them have not.  38.5% have received coaching from another teacher, which obviously doesn’t mean much in this case.  

But 61% of teachers took the time to learn how to use technology.  Ultimately, only 40.1% of teachers surveyed have any in-depth study of civics and civics content.  Their time has been spent learning widgets and gadgets, performing to state expectations, mastering instructional approaches, and getting instruction aligned with a curriculum.  And yes, they are important, too, no doubt. 

Governor Ron DeSantis has demanded civics education improvements related to the issues discussed here, but there’s also a political tug-of-war occurring, where the classroom is up for grabs by Republicans or Democrats who once-upon-a-time weren’t so ideologically far apart.  Speaking in terms of a values crisis, America is suffering from a divided sense of what is honorable morality and good citizenship. 

U.S. Congresswoman, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan – part of “The Squad,” – is very astute at stiffening her body after an expletive tirade to ensure she is awkwardly hauled out of a room.  I guess she’s worried about making her point, but for the vast majority of people, the optics are bad, especially after the speaker has delivered a public message that makes no sense to most.

Diane Rado, a veteran education journalist with Florida Phoenix complained in August 2019 that Florida’s education bill that passed last year “wasn’t exactly innocuous,” as it engaged the politically conservative Hillsdale College and the Libertarian Koch brothers’ “Bill of Rights Institute” to review Florida’s civics instructional material.  Never mind CNN student news and liberally-charged teachers don’t always keep their opinions to themselves in a classroom of vulnerable youths.  “Why the changes?” she asked in her article. “Is civics education broken?” 

Uh, I think so.

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