A day after a report that showed American students know little about their nation's history, State Bar Association President Vincent E. Doyle III today urged New York education officials to continue to foster the state's nationally acclaimed social studies programs.

"A vibrant democracy needs engaged citizens who understand the rights and responsibilities of being an American," said Doyle of Buffalo (Connors & Vilardo, LLP).

The State Department of Education has been weighing changes that would diminish the importance of the teaching of social studies.  It is unclear whether the Board of Regents will act on those proposals at its June 20 and 21 meeting.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress, issued Tuesday by the National Center for Education Statistics, found that only 12 percent of twelfth graders tested are proficient in American history.  Among fourth graders, 20 percent were rated proficient while 17 percent of eighth graders were proficient.   Only 9 percent of fourth graders, shown a picture of President Abraham Lincoln, could provide two reasons why he was important.

"Our schools fail our children--and our society--if they teach only the 3Rs.  They also must prepare children to be active participants in our democracy," Doyle said. 
The State Bar Association is concerned about what appears to be a trend toward the weakening of New York's commitment to educating all students about civics.  For example:

• In June 2010, the Board of Regents voted to eliminate social studies testing for fifth- and eighth-grade students. This sends a message to schools that teaching social studies is not a priority.

• The national Common Core Standards --adopted by New York and 43 other states-- focus on literacy and math.  The teaching of social studies falls under the English Language Arts umbrella. Such a model treats social studies (which includes history, civics, geography, economics and government studies) as a secondary curriculum.

•  Currently, students must pass two Regents exams in social studies (Global History and American History) to graduate from high school.  The staff of the State Department of Education has recommended that students be allowed to graduate having passed only one social studies exam-or none at all.

• According to a state Department of Education of memo, "The Regents Reform Agenda is centered on ensuring that all students graduate prepared for postsecondary education and/or career opportunities."  There is no mention of preparing students for citizenship.

"New York is currently among the national leaders in civics education," said Doyle.

"But recent changes-and others under consideration--by our education officials will dilute New York's historic commitment to civics education."

A recent report by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute found, "New York U.S. history standards are among the most substantively comprehensive and sophisticated in the nation." The Washington, D.C. think tank awarded New York an "A-minus"; the average grade of other states was "D".

On a national level, civics education is a top legislative priority of the New York State Bar Association.

The New York State Bar Association's Law, Youth and Citizenship program, founded nearly three decades ago, is the nation's third largest civics education program.  It has involved more than 5,000 teachers and works to bring quality civic education to all corners of the state.
As volunteers, members of the State Bar assist classroom teachers through its Lawyer in the Classroom, mock trials, moot courts, youth courts, youth outreach, essay contests and award-winning professional development programs.

The 77,000-member New York State Bar Association is the largest state voluntary bar association in the nation. It was founded in 1876.


Contact: Lise Bang-Jensen
Director of Media Services & Public Affairs