They Can Vote, But Do 18 Year-Olds Know How Government Works?

Local teachers say it's possible for an 18-year-old in Pennsylvania to head to the polls this week without a sense of how their government works.

"There is literally nothing that they know when I get them," said Jeff Biros, who teaches American Government and Civics for 11th- and 12th-graders at Gateway High School in Monroeville.

Biros, a former state legislative analyst who has been teaching social studies in the Gateway district for 13 years, said one of his goals is to help students understand that the Constitution is more than words on paper.

"In the end, if you don't understand it, then that's all it becomes," Biros said. "There's no life behind it. And if you don't know your rights, you'll surrender them."

A bill in the state Senate aims to help teachers like Biros prepare their students to understand and participate in government.

"I often say, the unfortunate thing today is, if you ask someone to identify three members of the U.S. Supreme Court, it's probably easier for them to identify the judges on American Idol," said Sen. John Rafferty (R-Berks, Chester and Montgomery counties), the bill's primary sponsor.

The proposed bill, S.B. 723, would require civics-related coursework starting in the 2019-20 school year. Students would also take an exam identical to the civics portion of the naturalization test used by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

Though the original version of the bill proposed this exam as a graduation requirement, a version passed by the Senate Education Committee in June removes that portion.

Results of the exam would be reported to the Department of Education to inform state social studies standards, which include some requirements for teaching state and national history, government and civics.

"We're not reaching the students, generally speaking, with the importance of our government and how it works," Rafferty said.

Pennsylvania isn't the only place where citizens seem to lack a basic understanding of how a bill becomes a law or practical knowledge such as how to register to vote. A survey conducted by the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania in 2016 showed that about a quarter of Americans over 18 were able to name the three branches of government -- executive, legislative, judicial -- while about a third weren't able to name any.

A portion of the survey conducted the August before the 2016 presidential election found that about 84 percent of Americans could name the Republican presidential candidate, Donald Trump. About 37 percent of those surveyed could name the Republican candidate for vice president, Mike Pence.

Eight states already require students to pass an exam based on the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services' citizenship test in order to graduate. Nine others, including West Virginia, require students to sit for an exam but do not include it as a graduation requirement, according to a September 2017 report by the Education Commission of the States.

Adding such requirements has not come without criticism, according to the report. There were 18 states -- including Pennsylvania -- that did not pass legislation between 2015 and 2017 aimed at adding similar requirements. Some of that resistance stemmed from a desire to avoid adding more high-stakes testing and concerns about whether the test is designed to promote civic engagement, the report said.

While the rigor of coursework varies, all of the 22 high schools in Allegheny and Westmoreland counties that responded to a Tribune-Review survey of 32 schools indicated that courses in civics or government are already part of local graduation requirements. Most of those schools offer the option to take Advanced Placement courses in government or American History.

Government and civics classes play a role not filled by other social studies or history courses, which often don't provide the technical information that students need to make informed decisions about local or state level elections, said Ken Stough, who teaches a class called Project 18 at Hempfield Area High School. It has been offered since the 1974-75 academic year in response to the passage of the 26th Amendment, which gave 18-year-olds the right to vote.

The course combines community service with academic coursework intended to bolster students' understanding of local and state government and to help them get involved in the community. Students must devote a portion of their service hours to something related to politics -- phone banking, volunteering at the polls -- and the remainder to a cause they care about, such as working in an animal shelter or food pantry.

Part of the challenge of teaching the course is developing the curriculum and teaching materials. When Project 18 was established in the district 43 years ago, Stough said it was part of a state initiative. Today, Hempfield Area is the only school he's aware of that still runs the course.

"A teacher really has to invest in creating materials, arranging guest speakers," Stough said.

Students said the real-world application of the class is what makes it valuable. Having the chance to meet candidates for local office and to volunteer for local campaigns makes local government more approachable, they said.

"You see the signs and everything, you can recognize the names, but you don't really know anything about them," said Alex Ross, 17.

His classmate Morgan Sperber, 18, commented on the value of learning about and discussing these issues in a classroom setting.

"How do you get involved if you're not knowledgeable?" Sperber said.

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