Reading, writing, math … and civics? New H.S. mandate possible
TRENTON — State lawmakers are considering requiring more civics lessons in New Jersey classrooms, though a proposal to make it a high school graduation requirement met resistance at its first hearing.
New Jersey high schools teach civics as part of U.S. government courses but not as a standalone course. That could change if a bill endorsed Thursday by the Assembly Education Committee, A1095, becomes law.
New Jersey requires two years of U.S. history and one year of world history in high school, and civics is required to be integrated into the courses. Arlene Gardner, executive director of the New Jersey Center for Civic Education, said a survey shows only 39 percent of schools in the state voluntarily offer a civics course to all students.
“Unlike 40 other states and the District of Columbia, New Jersey does not require a single civics course at any time in K-12,” Gardner said.
“Most New Jersey students have one week to one month of civic content as part of U.S. history in high school,” she said.
But Gardner has concerns about the bill, in part because she says the civics course should be taught in middle school to properly set a foundation. She also said any proposal should include funds to provide professional development to teachers, through her organization.
“There’s really no space in the high school curriculum to be adding an extra course,” Gardner said.
Deborah Bradley, director of government affairs for the New Jersey Principals and Supervisors Association says the state’s social studies standards are currently under review and that if civics isn’t fully represented, that’s a better way to improve it.
“By adding another high school graduation requirement, there’s only so much time in an academic day and an academic year,” Bradley said.
As currently written, the bill directs the state to require one course specifically in civics or United States government, beginning with the class that’s currently in 7th grade. Education groups say it’s unclear if the idea is for a full-year course or even a fourth required year of social studies.
“Is the civics course for a full year or a semester? Because if it was a full year, that could be a hardship on the district to fit it into the schedule,” said Sharon Seyler, a legislative advocate for the New Jersey School Boards Association.
The idea was endorsed by the Assembly Education Committee, but bill sponsor Assemblywoman Joann Downey agreed to meet with concerned groups to explore changes to the proposal.
The bill is one of four currently filed in Trenton seeking to improve civics education. One focuses on middle schools, another on both middle and high schools, and another would require students to pass a test identical to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Civics test as part of high school graduation requirements.