EdMedia Commons Archive

Five Questions For … Milken Educator Derek Vandegrift, On Teaching Civics and Student Engagement

In the new survey Fault Lines in Our Democracy, the ETS Center for Research on Human Capital and Education examined civic knowledge and engagement among U.S. students based in part on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as “The Nation’s Report Card.” EWA spoke with Derek Vandegrift, a history teacher at Waltham (Mass.) High School and a 2011 Milken Educator, about challenges facing civics educators, the impact of federal priorities, and the school’s role in developing citizenship.

1. The ETS survey found only 27 percent of fourth-graders could identify the purpose of the U.S. Constitution and only 22 percent of eighth-graders could recognize a role played by the U.S. Supreme Court. Do those findings surprise you?

At face value, both of these numbers are staggering. As I’ve taught primarily United States history for more than a decade, I winced as I looked over the findings in ETS report. My first response to these numbers was, “How can we (teachers) do better for our students?” 

As shocking as these statistics are, however, I would offer a few words of caution. These numbers come from only one measure (NAEP) of a representative sampling of students from across the country.  Drawing conclusions from only one data source is always a risky proposition and the NAEP has traditionally been an exam upon which even top achievers post results that appear low. Before we cry out that the sky is falling, conscientious educators should and will administer additional assessments and consider other data sources which will allow us to more accurately gauge our students’ knowledge of civics and government. 

2. Research suggests students retain information better, and are more engaged in their own learning, when they perceive the material as relevant to their own lives. How do you approach this in your own teaching?

I believe one of the keys to making content related to government and politics relevant to our students lies in Tip O’Neill’s famous assertion that “all politics is local.” When discussing the concept of federalism with my students, I take pains to show my students that it is their local government that has the greatest direct impact upon their daily lives. Additionally, since students have greater familiarity with local figures and issues within their own community, this makes it easier to illustrate the roles and duties of the branches and the figures within our government. Once we’ve established the connection between students and government within their immediate community, then we can more effectively illustrate concepts about our national government which may have previously seemed either remote or irrelevant to them.

3. Do schools need more instructional time set aside to civics-related issues, or is this more about shortfalls in how Americans participate in democracy?

I don’t think that this is “either or” question as this study seems to reveal shortfalls related to both civics education within our schools and related to civic participation within our society at large. However, to answer the first part of this question, I would offer a firm “yes.”

While some of the initiatives tied to NCLB have produced results for our students, one of the unintended consequences of the legislation was the shifting of resources within schools to subjects that would be directly assessed by high-stakes exams, most notably reading, writing and mathematics. The three most important resources schools have are qualified teachers, time and money. Over the life of NCLB, I’ve watched as resources were shifted away from social studies to other areas of the curriculum that would be subject to a state assessment.

4. How have you seen that shift in focus and resources play out at the national level?

Resources targeted for civics education have dried up.  Recently, Congress declined to renew several Teaching American History (TAH) grants which provided high-quality professional development opportunities to teachers of the subject. We are seeing the effect of this in my own school as we are in the final year of a TAH grant. I was excited to read about the Master Teacher Corps proposed by President Obama, which would make content expert teachers available as guides and mentors to their peers across the nation. Sadly, my excitement quickly dwindled when I read that the Corps would be limited to teachers of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) Perhaps this ETS report may encourage national policy makers to more fully include history, social studies, and civics teachers in their discussions once again.

5. What are some misconceptions about U.S. civics education that need to be corrected (feel free to call on any examples that frustrate you in terms of how the media reports on the topic)?

I’d challenge the belief that today’s students simply don’t care” about civics, government, and politics.  Visit any high school history classroom in which current events are discussed and you’ll quickly find out that students are very passionate about many issues in the news. To use terms from the ETS report, if students are “indifferent”, “disaffected” or “alienated,” in relation to government, politics and civic issues, I’d suggest that much of this stems from the increasingly complex problems presented to them in a rapidly changing world. When students see the solutions to these problems elude even their elected leaders, I can easily see how they might be overwhelmed, believe that their government doesn’t have the answers, and, accordingly, believe that the solutions to these issues lie well beyond their capacity as students and young people. This is a feeling that I am constantly combating with my students in my own classroom.


This post originally appeared on EWA’s now-defunct online community, EdMedia Commons. Old content from EMC will appear in the Ed Beat archives.