Q: My daughter, Charisse, just competed in a girls' rodeo event. In addition to riding skills, contestants were given a citizenship quiz and she failed. She didn't even know the vice president! I was shocked. If schools don't teach citizenship, how can I bridge the gap?
A: Earlier this summer, some Miss USA contestants visiting a TV show couldn't name Vice President Joe Biden, nor describe the color of the waves of grain in "America the Beautiful."
But young people aren't the nation's only civics slackers. A recent survey by Xavier University's Center for the Study of the American Dream found that one in three native-born citizens failed the civics portion of the naturalization test, in stark contrast to the 97.5 percent of immigrants applying for citizenship who passed it.
Native-born citizens do especially poorly on questions about the U.S. Constitution and the governmental, legal and political structure of American democracy -- principles that underlie our civic life. For example, 85 percent don't know the meaning of "the rule of law." (Take a sample test with Charisse at csmonitor.com/USA/2011/0104/Could-you-pass-a-US-citizenship-test.)
To beef up Charisse's civics savvy, use the upcoming election to get her engaged, suggests California educator Bill Laraway.
"CNN, Scholastic, TIME For Kids all have election news tailored to young people on their sites," says Laraway. "Check out C-Span's 'Road to the White House' for human-interest stories. NPR and USA Today have apps she might enjoy. The ironic humor on 'The Daily Show' and 'The Colbert Report' appeals to teens and will fire up their critical thinking.
"Watch the news together and have dinner-table discussions on topics she can relate to, such as how much folks should pay in taxes, whether college students' health insurance should be covered on their parents' plan.
"Take her to meet local candidates on the ballot in your area. Volunteer together in a campaign. The best way to raise a citizen is to model citizenship."
North Carolina educator and newly sworn-in U.S. citizen Lisa Malaquin-Prey suggests getting a copy of E.D. Hirsch Jr.'s book, "What Your Fourth Grader Needs to Know, Revised Edition" (Delta, 2005).
"Many of the questions on the test for immigrants wishing to become citizens can be found in it," says Malaquin-Prey. "Dr. Hirsch's Core Knowledge curriculum is increasingly popular in schools because it teaches the principles of American democracy and the rights and responsibilities of U.S. citizenship, starting in kindergarten." (Go to coreknowledge.org to learn more and locate schools that use the curriculum in your area.)
Parents shouldn't rely on schools alone to develop civic literacy.
"There's a tendency to treat civics and history as 'nice to know,' but it really is essential," says educator Robert Pondiscio, author of the Core Knowledge Blog (blog.coreknowledge.org). "Citizenship was the founding principle of public education. Civic participation is closely linked with educational achievement. The higher your education level, the more likely you are to vote.
"Education and civics are cornerstones of both schooling and our democracy."
(Do you have a question about your child's education? Email it to Leanna@aplusadvice.com. Leanna Landsmann is an education writer who began her career as a classroom teacher. She has served on education commissions, visited classrooms in 49 states to observe best practices, and founded Principal for a Day in New York City.)