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With nerves and excitement, millions of young Americans are back in school after years of pandemic disruption. At the same time, questions of effectiveness and inclusion across our education system reveal deep cause for concern.

Our education system is failing to educate the next generation to face the challenges of our times. We are not setting our children up for success.

To fix this, we need to deepen our investments in civics and history instruction, bolstered by an emphasis on critical thinking skills.

Only one-third of native-born Americans can correctly answer the basic civics questions required of naturalized individuals to achieve U.S. citizenship, according to recent research by the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation.

How can we expect our students to become engaged citizens when they lack basic knowledge of how our country works and its history?

In addition, U.S. students are being outperformed on math, science and reading tests by their counterparts in numerous other nations.

Left unchecked, these realities foreshadow an American future filled with even more profound challenges. Yet, meaningful efforts to address the issues have met with growing resistance, due in large part to persistent racial and ideological bias.

Our nation has real problems to solve, and many of the solutions will reside in our emerging youth populations of color; but to tap that potential, our schools need to better reflect their histories, experiences and needs.

Unfortunately, many Americans, especially white Americans, have rejected public initiatives to address the growing cultural and economic divides between how we invest in and educate our kids. Despite evidence that school integration improves educational outcomes for Black students without negatively affecting white students, as research by University of California, Berkeley Professor Rucker Johnson has shown, segregation of Black students has increased in almost every region of the nation in recent years. And the nation’s poorest schools are predominantly populated by Black and Latinx students, according to recent research by the UCLA Civil Rights Project.

These problems are compounded not only by the systemic under-compensation of teachers, resulting in many leaving the profession in the wake of the pandemic, but also by book bans, the questioning of provable facts and known science and the avoidance of the teaching of critical thinking skills. These are all dangerous propositions for a democratic republic like ours; finding common cause is ultimately essential for all of us to succeed.

Related: What do classroom conversations about race, identity and history really look like? 

Of course, in our multicultural and polarized society, it’s hard to teach civics in a way that avoids tension. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.

If we don’t change course, the diminishment of our shared sense of community, global competitiveness and allegiance to long-held pro-democracy values across the nation will only continue.

Our common interests call for something better and different than we are presently doing if our schools are to meaningfully achieve their primary missions of basic education, workforce preparation and community building.

Yet, despite our many challenges, there is reason for hope. Our nation has mobilized resources to improve educational opportunities and outcomes before — and we can do it again.

How can we expect our students to become engaged citizens when they lack basic knowledge of how our country works and its history?

Following World War II, the U.S. supported massive new investments in education and public infrastructure, Americans on average had a stronger inclination to vote and participate in civic affairs and the American economy was more robust and responsive to worker and employer interests alike.

Though measures like the G.I. Bill and the Interstate Highway Act initially excluded or limited benefits to racial minorities, members of these groups ultimately benefited from the nation’s overall enhancement of education, civics and workforce investment.

Important advances in civil and educational rights legislation in subsequent years further leveled the playing field.

Today, we have proven programs that school leaders and communities can build on to advance educational competencies and student preparedness to engage responsibly and successfully in civic affairs and the broader economy.

These teaching supplements include digital training tools such as those from Edutopia and iCivics — programs that help inspire constructive educational dialogues about the leading issues of our times.

They also include academic enrichment modules, programs that support the mentoring of public school kids by industry leaders, and credentialing scholarships, such as the K12 Strong Workforce Program of the California Community Colleges System.

Providing better civics and history education and job training opportunities to our youth is an essential start. But we also urgently need more applied learning that connects students’ problem-solving to their communities, a more equitable system of school financing and much greater investment in teachers and education professionals.

Failure to heed the call to action in these essential domains of American public life invites further degradation of our civic culture and global standing. We can and must do better if America is to remain a world leader in social, political and economic affairs. 

Henry A. J. Ramos is a senior fellow at the Institute on Race, Power and Political Economy and a former Jerry Brown appointee to the California Community Colleges Board of Governors.

Eric C. Abrams is chief inclusion officer at the Stanford University Graduate School of Education.

This story about civics and history education was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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