Professor heads effort to bring civics back to middle schools

If you know a teenager who can’t name the branches of government, don’t be too surprised. In this age of high-stakes testing, civic education is being crowded out of the curriculum in many schools.

A University of Florida professor, though, hopes to reverse the tide as project director of a new, half-million-dollar effort to prepare teachers to bring civics to Florida middle schools.

“Social studies , including civics, isn’t tested on the FCAT, and it isn’t part of No Child Left Behind, and as a result it’s falling off the map,” said Elizabeth Yeager, a professor at UF’s College of Education. “If you don’t have informed citizens, you can’t have a functioning democracy.”

Two years ago, the Florida legislature responded to the civic education slump by passing a law that required the teaching of civics in all the state’s middle schools.

That created a problem for middle-grades educators, who for years had taught geography, world cultures and history – but not civics – in social studies courses. Many younger teachers had never taught civics. Others had not had a class in American government since their college years.

Enter the Florida Joint Center for Citizenship, a bipartisan, multi-institutional organization dedicated to bringing quality civic education back to the K-12 classroom. The brainchild of former Florida Senator and Governor Bob Graham and former Congressman Lou Frey, the center was officially launched in late January by Gov. Charlie Crist. The center will combine the efforts of UF’s Graham Center for Public Service and the University of Central Florida’s Lou Frey Institute of Politics and Government to strengthen civic education in the state.

One of the Center’s first initiatives is a project that would provide summer workshops for middle grades educators to help them brush up on their knowledge of government. The project – “Strengthening Civic Education in Florida’s Middle Schools” – will be funded over a three-year period by a $556,000 grant from the Helios Education Foundation.

Yeager, working in conjuction with Annette Boyd-Pitts and the staff of the Florida Law-Related Education Association in Tallahassee, will direct the program, which will involve intense, five-day workshops in which teachers will study the foundations of the Constitution and current Constitutional issues. The program will also include a “service learning” component in which teachers are asked to identify a problem in their community and craft a plan for solving it through citizen action. Teachers can then go to their classes and ask their students to get involved in a similar way.

“The goal is for teachers and students to learn about both the content of the Constitution and the process for getting involved in their government,” Yeager said. “Democracy should be more than a spectator sport.”