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BURNETT: Why so many kids don’t know how the government works

D.C. trades history for more time in the gym

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Whatever one's political preference, inaugurations are -- as President George H.W. Bush said in his 1989 inaugural address -- "democracy's big day." The recent festivities were no different. The peaceful culmination of our election process is something that is witnessed with awe by people all over the world.

Unfortunately, that awe -- and the understanding that underlies it -- doesn't seem important to the D.C. State Board of Education (sic).

The board is proposing changes to the high school graduation requirements that would eliminate a U.S. government course. In other words, the young people in the District, the very seat of American democracy, could graduate from high school with little more than a passing understanding of what makes our country different from so many others.

Students in the District and across the nation deserve to learn about this country's continuing struggle for freedom and the democratic tools we can use to advance liberty. Unfortunately, evidence shows they are not.

The American Council of Trustees and Alumni, in fact, advocates for a U.S. history or government requirement for all college graduates -- because existing requirements in secondary school simply aren't enough. According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, just 27 percent of fourth-graders, 22 percent of eighth-graders and 24 percent of 12th-graders performed at or above the proficient level in civics in 2010.

What counts as "proficient"? Defining the term "melting pot" and arguing whether it can be applied to the United States is an example of a skill recognized as proficient of a high school senior.

Few students leave high school with adequate knowledge of American history. Even the best colleges and universities do little to close the knowledge gap. Less than 20 percent of colleges require American history, according to "What Will They Learn?" a nationwide study of more than 1,000 colleges.

What's more, it shows. A Roper survey found that only 57 percent of college graduates could identify John G. Roberts Jr. as the chief justice of the United States; just 58 percent knew the Constitution established a division of powers between the states and federal government; and a shockingly low 38 percent knew the term lengths for members of Congress.

The fact is, the abandonment of American history requirements is part of a national trend.

The civics requirement is on the D.C. board's chopping block to make room for additional physical education, art and music. However worthy these subjects are in their own right, they should not come at the expense of a working knowledge of the Constitution and democratic process.

D.C. students have a unique advantage that most other American schoolchildren lack: They live and work in the shadow of the Capitol. The physical manifestations of our democracy -- so out of reach for students in Iowa or New Mexico -- are just a few Metro stops away.

Students can see the steps of the Lincoln Memorial where Martin Luther King Jr. called for civil rights. They can experience the Capitol where bills are debated. They have access to leading actors in the political process who can tell the story of how our government operates. They can discuss how events like the recent inauguration were once thought impossible.

In other words, the District should reinvigorate, not eliminate, civics education.

Board President Laura Slover said she is open to discussion on the proposals. The answer is simple: In the face of appalling civic and historical illiteracy, we must strengthen our young citizens' knowledge of their government and of how they can make their voices heard, and give them the power that civic understanding allows.

Trading knowledge of civil rights sit-ins for sit-ups is not a concession that students and parents in the District should have to make.

Daniel Burnett is press secretary of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni.

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