The Shutdown Is Teaching Students How Not to Run a Country

"What we’re seeing now is so at odds with what we teach in civics classes that it’s going to cause cognitive dissonance."
Evan Vucci/AP Photo

With the partial shutdown of the federal government well into its second week, it’s reasonable to ask what lessons students might be absorbing from the actions of Congress—or lack thereof. Peter Levine, director of the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning & Engagement (CIRCLE) at Tufts University, told me the political stalemate might translate into a short-term “teachable moment” for a class on government. But in the long run, it’s a less-than-ideal curriculum.

“What we’re seeing now is so at odds with what we teach in civics classes that it’s going to cause cognitive dissonance,” Levine said. He added that students already know there's a disconnect between what they're being taught about how U.S. government is supposed to function and the realities of current events. And the shutdown only contributes to that gap, he added. (For more on how the shutdown is impacting public education, Education Week's Alyson Klein is tackling the tough questions for the Politics K-12 blog.)

Levine’s organization recently convened a commission to examine civic learning and engagement among young people, leading to a new report released today at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. The Commission on Youth Voting and Civic Knowledge conducted an extensive mix of surveys and interviews (including repeats over time to measure changes) with more than 700 teachers and more than 6,000 young people. Among the key takeaways:

  • On the National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as “The Nation’s Report Card,” white students from affluent families were “four to six times as likely to exceed the ‘proficient’ level” on the civics test, when compared with their black or Hispanic classmates from low-income households. (Irony alert: If you're looking for more on NAEP, you won't find it on the official government site. It's been shut down by the shutdown.)
  • Even in presidential elections, fewer than half of eligible young Americans vote. Those who do show up at the polls are more affluent and highly educated than those who don’t vote.
  • Nine out of 10 Americans ages 18-24 failed to meet the organization’s benchmark of “informed engagement” last year, defined as the following: “registered, voted, answered at least one (out
 of two) campaign knowledge questions correctly, answered four or more general political knowledge questions correctly, voted consistently with their personal opinion on
a campaign issue of their choice, and followed the news fairly or very closely during the election season.” 

While neither voter turnout nor political knowledge among young people has declined much since the 1970s, the political debate has become “more confusing, alienating, and polarizing,” the report’s authors contend.
“The degree of pushback and controversy surrounding the very idea of civic engagement is new,” Levine told me. “If I had to highlight just one statistic, it’s that a quarter of [the government and civics] teachers said their students’ parents would object to discussion of politics in the classroom."

As Levine pointed out, there’s little incentive for teachers to risk the heat of using a potentially controversial current event to engage students. “It’s not in the [state] standards, and it’s not on the high-stakes tests,” Levine said. Creative and determined teachers can usually find opportunities to incorporate these kinds of classroom activities, Levine said, but there needs to be more explicit support for them to do so.

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Emily Richmond is the public editor for the National Education Writers Association. She was previously the education reporter for the Las Vegas Sun.

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