The question of whether or not to employ competency-based teaching in civics education is debatable. Generally, competency-based education is more suitable for subjects that focus on concrete skills. Because civics topics are often abstract concepts, it’s sometimes difficult to measure specific achievement in the subject.
Since the late 19th century, the Carnegie Unit has been the customary standard for most civics education programs in the United States. On the surface, this seems logical, as much of civics education involves classroom discussion. Traditionally, learning through contact with the teacher and other students was only possible within the classroom. With contemporary instruction, however, a virtual classroom setting is made possible through technology.
The recent results of one national standardized test indicate that only around 25 percent of high school seniors tested proficiently in civics. Judging from these results, it shouldn’t be surprising that voter turnout among young adults between the ages of 18 and 24 is so low. A lack of understanding of civics and the political process more than likely contributes to their apathy. Clearly, if the Carnegie Unit method bears some blame for the low test scores, an alternative teaching method must be considered.
At least two groups of students can likely benefit from competency-based education:
1. Those who find learning challenging
2. Gifted students
In a competency-based education program, the student who finds learning difficult is allowed to work on one single unit at a time until they master it before they move on to a more complex unit. They needn’t fear falling behind or feeling lost as they might in a group of students with varying learning abilities.
Equally, the gifted student can work at their own accelerated pace and even have the opportunity to test out of units they have already mastered. Competency-based learning frees the gifted student from the boredom experienced when sharing a classroom with “average” students.
The middle and junior high school are levels where competency-based civics education could be highly productive. These are the grade levels when students are presented with many facts; such as names, places and dates. This doesn’t mean that senior high students don’t also learn facts, but by this stage students are taught more abstract concepts that are often illuminated by useful classroom discussion.
An excellent measure of civics proficiency is the civics portion of the U.S. Naturalization test, which every immigrant who wishes to become a naturalized U.S. citizen must pass. It only seems reasonable that natural-born U.S. citizens should be as proficient in U.S. civics as naturalized citizens must be. Whether the teaching method is the Carnegie Unit or competency based, ideally every U.S. K-12 program would be designed with the goal of requiring seniors to pass the naturalization test as one condition for receiving their high school diploma.