Last year, in a nationwide poll, only a third of adults could name all three branches of government.
According to some test results, 45 percent of 12th graders were unable to explain how citizens could change a law.
Our schools prepare our students for college, for work and for adulthood. But we have been missing a vital component in our students’ education: the role schools play in educating the citizen.
Increasing rates of cynicism among young people are leading to a historic lack of trust in our institutions. Pew Research tells us that Millennials distrust institutions more than any generation before them did.
As we rethink our needs in public education, civics must be considered one of those needs. That’s why I’ve been working with a group of my colleagues in the Legislature, including Senate Majority Leader Harriette Chandler of Worcester and State Representative Jay Kaufman of Lexington, on a comprehensive approach to restoring civics education in Massachusetts.
But civics is only half of the solution. Students also need to have the ability to critically examine information, to know where their information is coming from and whether their sources are reliable or not.
News media literacy is the second half of this critical education in civics.
That is why I introduced legislation to encourage school districts to teach civics and news media literacy.
The legislation directs the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to establish voluntary pilot programs to test the curriculum on news media literacy and include a civics participation project at least once in elementary school and at least once in high school.
Now is the perfect time to have this conversation, as researchers, educators and advocates come together to rewrite the MCAS for the 21st century.
What should a 21st century education look like?
I think many would agree that a modern education requires being able to grapple with tough questions – and being able to cite your sources. It means being able to tell the difference between “fake news” and fearless reporting – and putting more value on the latter.
Civics and news media literacy are vital components of this “21st century education.”
Take, for example, a survey of young people conducted by Tufts’ Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement. It found that young people who recalled memorable civic education experiences were more likely to vote, to form political opinions and to know campaign issues.
Importantly, civics education does not lead to partisanship.
While it made the students more likely to vote, it did not make them more likely to support one party or one candidate over another.
Put simply, civics education makes students better citizens.
School was never meant just to prepare students for careers; it was also meant to turn students into lifelong learners.
What use is an education if our students cannot use it to make the world a better place? To challenge old ways of doing things and use their talents to the fullest?
This, after all, is what I think a “21st century education” should be all about.
Sen. Eric P. Lesser is the Senate chairman of the Joint Committee on Economic Development & Emerging Technologies, vice chairman of the Joint Committee on Financial Services, and leads Millennial Outreach for the Massachusetts State Senate. He represents the First Hampden & Hampshire District in Western Massachusetts.