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NH joins a number of states requiring more civics lessons

New Hampshire Sunday News

July 02. 2016 8:13PM
Student Jasmine Cuenca of Pinkerton Academy makes a point while in a subcommittee meeting for the House of Representatives during the American Legion Auxiliary's Granite Girls State government session at St. Anselm College on Friday. (DAVID LANE/UNION LEADER)
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As of January, all New Hampshire high school students will have to take a civics test - perhaps even the one that newcomers have to pass to become American citizens.

Under a new state law, school districts can develop their own civics competency assessments, but they must include "the nature, purpose, structure, function and history of the United States government, the rights and responsibilities of citizens, and noteworthy government and civil leaders."

The law passed with little notice.

Even the prime sponsor, Sen. Regina Birdsell, R-Hampstead, was unaware that Senate Bill 157 had passed - and delighted to learn from a reporter that Gov. Maggie Hassan had signed it into law on March 16. "I'm very happy," she said Saturday.

Equally happy - and surprised - was Susan Leahy, one of the founders of the New Hampshire Institute for Civics Education, a nonprofit organization working to improve civics education in New Hampshire schools.

Leahy said the lack of knowledge about the basics of American government is "appalling."

"Our form of government requires that there be an informed populace - people who are motivated to vote, and to participate in government and in society," she said. "If we don't, our democracy doesn't work."

It's a message that resonated at last week's Girls State, sponsored by the American Legion Auxiliary to promote citizenship and civic engagement. While most students were relishing the first days of summer vacation, 45 rising high school seniors spent the week at Saint Anselm College participating in mock elections and legislative sessions.

A similar program, Boys State, sponsored by the American Legion, was held at Rivier University in Nashua last week.

Madison Smith, 16, from Bishop Brady High School in Concord was elected Senate president at Girls State. She thinks there should be more civics classes so students can understand how their government works.

She also thinks students should be able to pass the same test that newcomers have to take to become citizens. "If we set the standard that this is what you need to know to come to our country to all of these immigrants, then we should set those standards for ourselves," she said. "We shouldn't hold ourselves to a different standard just because we were born here."

Natalie Baker of Sutton, a student at NHTI, attended Girls State in 2014 and was a junior advisor this year. She was stunned to learn that only 31 percent of people in a recent survey could name all three branches of government; 32 percent couldn't name one.

"That's sickening," she said. "That's so sad."

"It just shows how uneducated our society is about public policy and the government itself," Baker said.

Martha Madsen is president of the N.H. Institute for Civics Education, which she said aims to make New Hampshire "first in the nation in citizenship preparation."

She said civics education involves teaching kids attitudes (tolerance, empathy, the common good); skills (conflict resolution, Roberts rules) and knowledge (voting, branches of government, the Constitution).

Among the goals of the new Institute: creating online resources for teachers; developing a model for electronic student portfolios to demonstrate civics learning; and promoting events to engage citizens of all ages in discussions about constitutional issues.

But Madsen said teachers today are often forced to focus on preparing their students for "high-stakes testing," which can leave little time for such subjects as civics.

'We're all citizens'

Sen. Birdsell said she was inspired to sponsor the civics testing bill by the kind of videos popular on late-night TV shows that show how ignorant many Americans are about history and government. The videos are meant to be funny but Birdsell called them "heart-wrenching."

"I was literally disgusted by how little we know of our history," she said.

Her original measure, introduced in January, 2015, would have made passing the test a graduation requirement. But the Senate Education Committee amended it so students were only "encouraged" to take the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) test - the one given to immigrants who want to become citizens.

The House Education Committee kept the bill to study over the summer. And when it came back last fall, they put some teeth back in the measure, requiring schools to administer a civics test as part of their history and government instruction.

In February, the Senate voted to accept the House version. The new law applies to students eligible to receive a high school diploma or equivalency certificate on or after Jan. 1.

And while there's no requirement that students pass the test in order to graduate, those who do can get certificates from their school districts.

New Hampshire joins a growing number of states requiring civics tests; in Arizona, North Dakota, South Dakota and Utah, it's a requirement for graduation, according to U.S. News and World Report.

Heather Gage, director of the division of educational improvement at the state Department of Education, said school districts can develop their own assessments to meet the new requirement or use the USCIS test.

Gage said the Every Student Succeeds Act is expected to bring some new federal dollars into states to use for civics education. Just how much New Hampshire will receive is uncertain, however, she said.

Students here are required to take a half-year of civics in high school. But the state's social studies standards are a decade old.

The education department's Gage said revising those standards is "something we should be looking at in the next year or so."

Nationwide, social studies instruction has declined markedly in the past 10 years, Madsen said, in part due to new testing requirements and the more recent focus on STEM subjects, she said.

She wants civics to become "the glue in all instruction," from the literature kids read, to how classrooms are run - with students adopting a class Constitution, for instance.

And she'd like to see New Hampshire adopt what's called the "C3" framework for social studies. The three Cs are college, career and civic life; the National Council for the Social Studies recommends that schools prepare students for all three, she said.

"As Sandra Day O'Connor said, ... we're not all going to be engineers, we're not all going to be writers, but we're all citizens."

That's why public schools were established in America to begin with, Madsen said. "We need to have things in common that we agree on as citizens," she said. "If we're all going to splinter off into our own different things, then we're not really going to have a country."

The right place

Madsen thinks New Hampshire is the right place to try to boost civics education. "I think overall, we're more engaged. We're closer to presidential candidates but also, because we have such a large state legislative body, I think we're all closer to our representatives," she said.

Leahy agreed the effort has a better shot of succeeding here, "because we're smaller and because I think the first-in-the-nation primary brings a lot of excitement to people."

In ten years time, she said, "I hope that we are systematically teaching civics, starting in kindergarten and spiraling up through graduation."

The push for more civics education comes at a time when many prominent thinkers - including New Hampshire's own retired Supreme Court Justice David Souter - are warning about an alarming lack of civic knowledge and engagement in the American electorate.

Souter is among the founders of the N.H. Institute for Civics Education. He declined to be interviewed for this story, as he still hears cases in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit in Boston.

But in his rare public appearances, Souter often focuses on the importance of having an informed citizenry.

Souter officiated at a naturalization ceremony at Strawbery Banke on July 4, 2011, telling the new citizens that they could be good examples to native-born American citizens.

"Because one of the sad facts of life in the United States is that you know right at this moment more about what is in the Constitution of the United States than most Americans do," he said.

The greater good

Late Friday morning at Saint Anselm College, state senators took up a controversial bill to allow individuals of either gender to go topless in public. The discussion was impassioned, thoughtful and respectful.

Upstairs, House members were discussing a measure requiring anyone convicted of driving under the influence to do community service. Members weighed the balance between punishment and undue hardship; some shared their own families' experiences with the consequences of drunken driving.

Meanwhile, the governor (Jenna Hartwick of Spaudling High School in Rochester) was meeting with her Executive Councilors, seeking their advice on key appointments, matching talents and experience with open positions.

Kimberly Ortega, 17, from Merrimack High School said she was planning to double-major in chemistry and art. But after a week at Girls State, she said, "I'm very torn right now, because I've been pretty set on that path for a while. But I really feel like politics is very important."

Her dad spent six years serving on their town school board, she said. "I fully understand now why he feels that's an important thing, to serve our community, and I have a new appreciation for the work he's done - and the work I could do in the future."

It's the same for Sarah Crocker, 17, from Hollis-Brookline High. Before Girls State, she said, "I wanted to get a degree in political science and I wanted to become a lawyer."

Now she's thinking about government service.

"I think a good citizen is someone who participates and doesn't do it for themselves," Crocker said. "They're doing it for the greater good of their community."

She thinks civics should be a year-long course in high school, not just a half-year. "Because government is so important to learn about, and you need to be educated about it in order to know what's going on in the society around you," she said.

Kadidja Conde, 17, from Laconia High School was elected House Speaker; she said most of her fellow students don't share her enthusiasm for civics and politics. "It's frustrating, because it affects every aspect of your life, something that you should care about if you're a citizen in America."

Conde can't vote in the upcoming election; she won't turn 18 until next April. And she said, "I feel unbelievably powerless, because I'm so passionate about this."

Natalie Baker will vote for the first time in a presidential election and she's excited about it. "I think now I feel like I can actually make a difference," she said.

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