When Rep. Roger Wicker asked high school seniors in his Mississippi district to name some unalienable rights, he got silence. So the Republican congressman gave the advanced-placement history students some help.
"Among these are life," Wicker said, "and...."
"Death?" one student said. So much for liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
"It's not so much that they don't know the rote phrases and facts," said Wicker, the sponsor of a House bill to improve civics instruction. "It just demonstrates a real gap in the education of young Americans."
The problem is on the minds of social studies teachers here at the National Education Association conference, where an original copy of the Declaration of Independence is on display. The classroom challenge is not only to make government and history interesting, but to keep students from becoming alarmingly disengaged.
"If our kids walk out of our school systems without an understanding of democracy, democracy will cease," said Dakota Draper, an eighth-grade history teacher in North Dakota. "That's a scary thing."
The nation's civics struggle has even become a late-night staple for Jay Leno, who scores laughs showing how people offer ridiculous answers to simple questions.
But educators don't think it's funny. In daily life, it's a lack of understanding about government that prompts people to call Congress when they want the dog catcher, or to complain to a local council member about a federal tax change. Over time, it can add up to disenfranchised and apathetic citizens.
So teachers try to find a way to make history contemporary, to make a civics lesson out of a struggle students care about. Like fighting for a skateboard park or the right to wear hats in school. In short: any lesson they'll take with them.
"I always tell my students: If I see you in the grocery store five years from now, I will not measure my success on can you tell me Hamilton's financial plan, but can you tell me if you voted," Meredith Elliott, an American studies teacher in Utah, said during a round-table discussion at the NEA convention. "If you answer yes, then I've succeeded as a teacher."
Beth Ludeman, a government and history teacher in Wisconsin, said: "I'm much less concerned about a test at any given point as I am making sure the kids I work with have the opportunity to extend those skills through their lifetime. And I've seen them do some pretty phenomenal things with very limited resources."
Still, scores on the nation's benchmark tests might astound the country's founders.
About one third of students in fourth, eighth and 12th grade could not even show a basic understanding of civics at their grade level, according to the last National Assessment of Educational Progress on the subject in 1998.
The same was true for fourth-graders and eighth-graders in U.S. history in 2001; high school seniors fared even worse, with nearly six in 10 below "basic," meaning they lack even partial mastery of fundamental skills.
The sobering results have prompted calls for action.
President Bush launched a national effort last year to improve civics education, pointing to embarrassing student stumbles over the Pledge of Allegiance and the Gettysburg Address. The Senate has passed a bill to improve civics training for teachers and students, the same idea Wicker is pushing in the House.
Meanwhile, state lawmakers are showing more interest in beefing up a civics curriculum. Such courses typically are offered too infrequently in schools and aren't comprehensive, said Charles Quigley, executive director of the nonprofit Center for Civic Education.
"We tend to focus on the problem, and the problem is fairly extensive," Quigley said. "But we have to recognize there are a lot of people doing very good things in civics and government. Unfortunately, there aren't enough of them."
The key is to incorporate civics lessons in courses throughout the grades, said Cathy Atkinson, a high school social studies teacher in Wisconsin. One idea of hers: ensure student councils are true governments, not social clubs.
"If we could involve the kids more in the decision-making at the school, where they would see immediate impact and the ability to influence, that would put more of the message in them: They can actually do something," she said.
Independence Day History Quiz Answers
1. The man in the painting is John Hancock, a wealthy Boston merchant who became one of the leaders of the American Revolution and was the first to sign the Declaration of Independence, issued on July 4, 1776.
2. As a leader of the Revolution, Hancock's signature is seen here on the Declaration of Independence - stating that the British had violated the basic rights of the people in the thirteen colonies, and the colonies were therefore free of allegiance to the crown and would be independent.