Milwaukee Journal Sentinel article on Wauwatosa We the People classesOn April 23, results of nationwide testing of eighth graders in civics, American history and geography were released, and the news was not good. Civics was flat compared to four years earlier, and history and geography were down. Overall, the scores indicated not much progress had been made in these subjects since the 1990s. Only 15% of students were rated in the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) as proficient or better in US history.
On April 24, a parade of vehicles in Wauwatosa, complete with a police escort and cheering bystanders, honored about two dozen Wauwatosa West High School juniors who were going to take part the next day in a national competition called We The People, which challenges them to show their understanding of American history and government.
On April 25, a second parade, again with police escort and cheering fans, honored about two dozen students from Wauwatosa East who also were going to take part in the competition.
What are they doing right in Wauwatosa, where both schools are top performers in We the People year after year? And what are we doing wrong nationwide that kids as a whole don’t seem to have a very strong grasp of these subjects?
If there was ever a time when it would be good for everybody – and teenagers are an important part of everybody – to understand how the nation is run, this is it. An impeachment proceeding. Presidential election campaigns. Huge battles between the branches of government and between the federal government and the states. And this astonishing period in which life as we have known it has all-but come to a halt because of a virus – and because of decisions by people in government.
The Wauwatosa students get this.
“It’s pretty obviously reflected in our culture” that nationwide, a lot of people don’t know much about the facts of how government works, said Michela Miller, a junior at Tosa East. Understanding civics, she said, is important and can make your thinking based more on facts and evidence.
Wisconsin requires students to earn at least three high school credits in social studies, including civics. In Wauwatosa, students take a government class in their junior year. Most take a course called American Public Policy.
One section of the course is titled American Public Policy Special Emphasis—which means exactly that. More work, college-level-like research, and involvement in the We the People program run by a non-partisan organization, the Center for Civic Education. Students select among six areas of American government and history for year-long individual and group work.
These are motivated students. Some are especially interested in the subject. (“I’m reading this book on presidential war powers, just for fun, “ said Tosa East’s Ella Laatsch.) Some such as Luke Huitink, a senior at West, are considering becoming lawyers. Some, such as Olivia Bree of Tosa West, expect to pursue other careers, but signed up to develop speaking and academic teamwork skills and because a ninth grade class on American history was interesting.
The commitment and enthusiasm of Chad Mateske at West and Dan McHugh at East, the teachers who coach the We the People teams, is a big factor. I’ve written in the past about comparable academic efforts at other schools and there are always strong teachers at the center of them.
The academic year ends with the national competition in which students testify in a format similar to a congressional hearing about subjects such as the history of constitutional interpretation.
Not many schools in Wisconsin take part. Only five were part of the state competition in January, which Tosa East won. But a lot of schools take part nationwide, leading to the national finals in Washington, D.C., each year -- each year except this one, of course. Rather than class trips to Washington for the teams from both schools, the competition was done on Zoom.
I watched some of the video from last weekend of the Tosa students’ testimony. I was impressed by their knowledge, composure, and teamwork.
But they are standouts in a much less impressive landscape nationwde. It can be overstated how little students know about subjects such as these, but indicators for years have shown there’s a problem.
Some would point to the impact of the big push in the last couple decades on literacy and math. Going back to the No Child Left Behind federal law of 2002, subjects such as social studies, science, music, art and physical education got less time and attention in many schools. (On the other hand, you’re not going to do very well in most of those subjects if you can’t read well.)
Some would point to the bazillion distractions of our culture and the priorities set in so many homes as reasons for low interest. (Count me in on this score.)
There have been some positive steps. I would even count the enormous success of the Broadway musical “Hamilton” in this. It genuinely raised awareness of this towering figure in American history. (Mention of the show got strong positive reactions among the Tosa students I spoke with.)
Maybe there is even some positive effect to the law in Wisconsin which has required all high school graduates since the Class of 2017 to pass a 100-question test on civics. I’m skeptical of its impact since the test is easy to pass (and, like so many things, the requirement is not being enforced for this year’s graduates, due to COVID-19).
There are a bunch of differences between the national sample of students who took the NAEP tests and the Wauwatosa students who are models of commitment to learning these subjects. But a lot of it boils down to two factors: Students who think this is important and interesting. And teachers who are models of how to make good things happen. Such combinations deserve parades through the streets.
Alan J. Borsuk is senior fellow in law and public policy at Marquette Law School. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
last updated may 2020