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States play hooky from teaching about Democrats and Republicans

Spotswood High School seniors Jared Morris, left, and Nathan Rebich vote in a mock election in Penn Laird, Va., on Tuesday.
Spotswood High School seniors Jared Morris, left, and Nathan Rebich vote in a mock election in Penn Laird, Va., on Tuesday. Daily News-Record

High school students across the country are not being taught what it means to be a Republican or Democrat, according to a new study obtained by McClatchy analyzing social studies standards in all 50 states.

The major parties are taught in a historical context instead of a political one.

“It’s probably fair to say that Federalists and Whigs are mentioned more than Democrats and Republicans,” said Paula McAvoy, one of the authors of the study conducted by Tufts University.

That doesn’t necessarily mean that hot-button issues are ignored in all classrooms. Some teachers still choose to discuss political issues on their own.

But when states don’t require dissecting current political issues, many teachers won’t bother to touch such a controversial topic.

McAvoy recalls a teacher in Florida telling her, “If I don’t see a standard, I don’t get anywhere near it.”

The study emphasizes that merely mentioning the role of political parties is not enough to prepare future voters, who rely on ideological orientations to make decisions at the ballot box.

The problem is many state standards are political documents that get haggled over, with lawmakers and policy experts wrangling to make social studies as nonpartisan as possible. Only one state, North Carolina, includes the words Democrat or Republican in its social studies curriculum.

“The general public isn’t totally convinced that contemporary politics belongs in the classroom,” McAvoy said.

Ann Ward, a lecturer at Carroll University who is one of the authors of the study, was teaching high school civics in Wisconsin during the 2012 election. She wanted to teach about the important issues between President Barack Obama and challenger Mitt Romney, but she found that there wasn’t any guidance in the curriculum.

“People shy away from it because it’s seen as a point of conflict,” Ward said. “It’s a normal part of the election.”

Ward said the rhetoric from Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton in this election heightened those concerns.

“When they (the candidates) call each other names at home and at school it makes it less likely that people will want to talk about the election,” Ward said.

Teaching about insults lobbied by Trump or Clinton is hard for any civics teacher, but College of William and Mary education professor Jeremy Stoddard came up with a potential solution last spring for teaching partisan politics without proselytizing.

Stoddard, who was not a part of the Tufts study, placed high school students in mock interest groups supporting or opposing fracking in Virginia. The students were provided with the tools of partisan campaigns: mock polling data, a budget and media buying costs. They pitched the results in a PowerPoint presentation.

“What we want kids to be able to do is recognize they can disagree on a contentious issue and seek out sources of information,” Stoddard said.

But Stoddard said the wishes of the surrounding community could affect the types of discussions teachers had with students. He sees it firsthand in the Norfolk area, where many parents serve in the military.

“There’s a lot of teachers in our area, because of the military ties, that don’t want to get into politics,” he said.

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