Media Strategy: Getting the Free Press to Teach Civics

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The New York Times Learning Network

This week we celebrate the sacrifices, risks, and achievements our founding fathers undertook so that we could skip work, drink beer, and set off fireworks. Actually, we don't dishonor their memory by the way we spend the Fourth of July. We dishonor them all year long because of the sorry state of civics education in this country. Most Americans are alarmingly unfamiliar with the institutions our founders created, how they operate and what they are supposed to do. Don't know much about Congress or the Bill of Rights? Civic ignorance is never a good thing, but it's especially troubling as the country wrestles with fundamental questions about the role of government in our lives.

Test scores released last month from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a.k.a. the Nation's Report Card, were a stark reminder of the problem: less than one quarter of all students performed at or above the proficient level on NAEP's 2010 history test. And just 17% of eighth-graders scored at the proficient level, meaning that the vast majority of them did not understand key events such as the infamous three-fifths compromise (the founding fathers' solution to whether/how slaves should be counted when apportioning members of the U.S. House of Representatives based on a state's population) or the Industrial Revolution.

Students didn't fare much better on the national civics assessment either. According to data released in May, only 22% of eighth-graders were proficient on the NAEP's 2010 civics questions, which probed such things as their understanding of major aspects of the Constitution as well as their ability to interpret a graph about voter participation. The problem is not just the kids. Earlier this year, when Newsweek gave 1,000 adults in the U.S. a random sample of the questions on the test that immigrants must pass in order to become citizens, 38% failed; 29% did not even know who the current Vice President is. As Joe Biden might say, this is a big f***ing deal.

In education, serious debates about public policy are perverted when people don't know basic facts about how our schools are governed or funded. When researchers from the education journal Education Next asked the public about their knowledge of teacher pay and school funding, the survey found that most respondents underestimated both by large margins. The researchers spotlighted similar confusion about key features of major reform efforts, for instance whether charter schools can teach religion. (They can't.)

Civic illiteracy and historical ignorance are not new problems, but that doesn't mean they're not serious ones. And although it's in vogue to blame the media for the decline of our public discourse, news industry leaders might be uniquely positioned to improve civics education. How? By helping provide better curriculum for U.S. schools than is often available today. Curriculum battles don't grab headlines the way issues like teacher evaluation and school choice do, but the lack of content-rich lesson plans is a major problem facing our schools.

So here's a modest proposal: newspapers and broadcast networks are sitting on a trove of material that can be converted into curriculum and sold — yes, sold — for use in our nation's schools and universities. Digitizing these so-called rough drafts of history would not only bring to life many of the events and ideas that students (and adults) should understand as informed citizens, but would help a struggling industry expand its revenue sources.

This isn't an idle fantasy. There are already some efforts under way. A few years ago, NBC used its video archives to launch a curricular tool for teachers that is designed to supplement Advanced Placement classes. The site offers a free 30-day trial; after that, schools have to pay an annual subscription. Even though television archives contain just a part of our national story, teachers can use contemporaneous footage to craft engaging lessons about events such as the Civil Rights movement, the Vietnam War, and the energy crisis of the 1970s.

Print archives go back much further, of course, and a project called Chronicling America, which is run by the Library of Congress and the National Endowment for the Humanities, is digitizing newspaper archives for classroom use. The New York Times offers lesson plans linked to specific articles and groups these plans by category — and yes, one of them is civics!

Meanwhile, Time and other publications offer free access to their amazing digital archives. But that content could help students even more if it's aligned to academic standards about what students need to know and put in a format teachers can easily incorporate into lessons. That kind of premium packaging should come at a price. Of course, we can't expect the cash-strapped education industry to bail out the media. And we shouldn't expect the media to solve our educational problems. But ambitious efforts around curriculum could help all parties, including students. The founders bequeathed us a free press. Here's one way to make better use of it.

Andrew J. Rotherham, who writes the blog Eduwonk, is a co-founder and partner at Bellwether Education, a nonprofit working to improve educational outcomes for low-income students. School of Thought, his education column for, appears every Thursday.