Shouldn’t students graduating from high school be at least as knowledgeable about how our government works as immigrants to whom we grant citizenship? Some Iowa state legislators believe they should. A recent senate bill (Senate File 2341) would require students graduating from high school to have passed an American history and civics examination consisting of “all the questions used in the latest available civics examination administered by the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services.”
To insure the exam does not become an insurmountable roadblock to graduation, students can begin taking the exam in the seventh grade and repeat it as often as necessary to pass (60 percent correct of 100 multiple-choice questions). About one-third of states already have requirements for students to take citizenship exams, including eight states that require students pass the exam for graduation.
This is a nonpartisan bill I can support. Although the exam has been criticized for relying on rote memory, there should still be mutual reinforcement between facts learned for the exam and knowledge from history, political science and other social science courses in students’ curriculum. Together, this knowledge should provide students a greater comprehension and appreciation of how our government works, and especially an understanding of their own crucial role in the process. The ultimate goal is for youth to become involved citizens (perhaps saving us in the future from a political plight such as the one in which we now find ourselves).
Unfortunately, the bill did not make it through the latest legislative funnel. The house did not act on it so it is dead for this session. But with civics education for youth being a national movement, it will surely resurface in some form in the future. Although I support the intentions of the bill, I have reservations about a couple implementation specifics and I offer some thoughts for legislators’ consideration.
One reservation about the bill relates to our state government leaders favoring tax concessions for big business and industry over funding for education. Reflecting this year’s earlier legislative battle over funding for education, this bill states that no additional funding to school districts will be made or deemed necessary for implementing the exam. For schools already operating on tight budgets, even a small additional unfunded mandate such as implementing this test can result in other curriculum cuts or an additional task and burden for teachers.
My other reservation is the allocation of $60,000 for preparation of the exam instruments. Granted, an alternative assessment instrument for youth with disabilities will be required, but is translating the exam into multiple languages (as stated in the bill) necessary? This is an exam on the basics of how the U.S. government works, and the official language of our nation is English. Now, before anyone accuses me of being intolerant of other nationalities or immigrants, let me state I more than sympathize, indeed I empathize, with immigrants having to learn a new language.
World War II returning GIs originally from rural areas could not be “kept down on the farm after they’d seen Paree.” So, in the early 1950s farmers needing field-hands to help with the work recruited workers from Germany (and perhaps other countries) where unemployment was high. Upon arriving in the U.S., most could not speak, read or write English, and there were no special programs to help them learn. For all these families including my own, learning English just occurred through osmosis, driven by a need and desire to make a go of it in this country.
Referring to terms used to describe integration of immigrants into U.S. society, I understand the distinction between the old “melting pot” and the more recent “salad bowl.” I also respect and understand the desire of groups with differing backgrounds wanting to maintain their cultural heritage and identity. And as a sociologist, I understand the strength a social organization derives from diversity. But I also understand the necessity for an organization’s well-being of common bonds across diverse groups, such as a common language, to tie them together. German immigrants were proud of their heritage, and upon arriving in the U.S., made friends with other German families in the community. But they assimilated quickly, learning the new language and expanding their social circle beyond their ethnic group. My own family began speaking English even at home sometime in our third year in the U.S.
Those within school should have no need for a foreign language translation given English is a fundamental component of any school’s curriculum. For those outside the formal school system, say someone getting a GED, there are numerous opportunities available to assist learning the language. My father was a skilled carpenter, but for a few years had to work as a laborer because he did not belong to the union. To join the union back then he needed to become a citizen, which required being functionally literate in English. He did it without any of the assistance so readily available today. A family friend who worked for the meatpacker Swift had a similar experience. Forget the translations. Instead, to insure students derive the intended benefit, add a little more money to the pot and give it to the schools to assist them in implementing the program.
Pete Korsching is an Iowa State University Emeritus Professor, a Nevada resident and a freelance columnist for the Nevada Journal.