The State of Civic Education in the United States

While the idea of civics can invoke many different ideas of participation in society, perhaps the first thing that comes to mind is participation in traditional democratic processes—voting and showing our support or contention over the initiatives and proceedings of our government. There are multiple civic arenas, from the local city and county to the state and federal levels, from the executive to the legislative to the judicial branches of government.

Growing up, many of us come to contextualize our government by first learning about the processes of our federal government, whose governance structures are copied by many states and local governments. How do we learn how our government works? What is the role of the government in civic education? What is the state of civics education in the United States today, and what is being done to improve it?

Why Should We Care About Civics?

The Founding Fathers believed that knowledge of government and civic life were essential for the survival of the American democratic republic. Thomas Jefferson said, “”Whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government.” John F. Kennedy said, “There is an old saying that the course of civilization is a race between catastrophe and education. In a democracy such as ours, we must make sure that education wins the race.”

“There is an old saying that the course of civilization is a race between catastrophe and education. In a democracy such as ours, we must make sure that education wins the race.”

~ President John F. Kennedy

Aside from a sense of duty, civic education and activity have also been shown to have a beneficial effect on students’ overall academic achievement. Research using the National Educational Longitudinal Study found that service-learning, voluntary community service, and participation in student government increased students’ odds of graduating from college and improved their achievement in history, math, reading, and science. Thus, civic education and civic engagement can have multiplier effects across other aspects of life.

The Substandard State of Civic Education in the United States

Many are concerned about the state of civics knowledge in the United States. The Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania routinely surveys the American public on their civics knowledge. In the most recent survey of 1,416 U.S. adults, 35% of respondents could not name a single branch of the federal government. On the other hand, 36% of respondents could name all three. A survey of 1,000 U.S. adults from Xavier University’s Center for the Study of the American Dream found that a third of native-born Americans would fail the naturalization test for immigrants, which over 90% of naturalization-seeking immigrants pass. However, there were disparities in passing rates among respondents of different educational attainment levels; only 44% of adults with a high school education or less passed the test, compared to 82% of adults with a college education or higher.

Congress has mandated a regular assessment of American students’ knowledge of various subjects; this is done through the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) under the U.S. Department of Education. The framework for the civics test was developed by broad stakeholder committees under the Council of Chief State School Officers, the Center for Civic Education, and the American Institutes for Research, who identified three key areas of assessment: knowledge, intellectual and participatory skills, and civic dispositions. The 2014 NAEP civics assessment found that 26% of students did not meet basic knowledge levels in civics. The results showed large knowledge gaps between white and Asian/Pacific Islander students as compared to black and Hispanic students. Private school students had a 16 percentage-point higher proficiency rate than public school students. Groups especially vulnerable to a lack of civics proficiency include those on free or reduced-price lunch programs, students with disabilities, and ESL students.

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A study found that the openness of classroom discussions has a greater effect on civic proficiency than the actual length or frequency of social studies classes. More racially diverse classrooms, unfortunately, are at higher risk for having less open discussions. Students who more frequently found their civics classes interesting had higher test outcomes.

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Terry Mazany, chairman of the National Assessment Governing Board, which oversees the exams, said of the test findings: “Geography, U.S. history and civics are core academic subjects that must be a priority. They represent knowledge and skills that are fundamental to a healthy democracy. The lack of knowledge on the part of America’s students is unacceptable, and the lack of growth must be addressed. As a country, we must do better.”

Indeed, civics education has a direct effect on civic engagement. In a survey of 4,483 Americans aged 18-24 after the 2012 election, the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) at Tufts found that 60% of those who had a civics course in high school turned out to vote, as compared to 43% of those who had no civics course. Those with more “high-quality” experiences in their classes, including community projects or discussion of current events, were much more likely to have voted.

Federal and State Civic Education Policies

Research conducted on federal education policies has shown some negative consequences for civics education. The enactment of No Child Left Behind in 2001 and then Race to the Top in 2009 has pushed schools into high-stakes testing for reading, math, science, and writing and has made federal funding contingent on reaching national benchmarks for these subjects. Without national requirements for civics, social studies, or history, local and state school boards do not prioritize these classes.

Common Core Standards, when released in 2010, did not exist for social studies. However, Common Core English Language Art Standards include requirements of three civic texts for students to read—the Declaration of Independence, the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution & the Bill of Rights, and Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address. Teachers interested in the connection between civic literacy and civic engagement have said that Common Core requirements to simply read the foundational documents of our democracy are not enough. The addition of the College, Career, and Civic Life (C3) Framework for Social Studies State Standards in 2013 was highly anticipated by social studies teachers, but some say they are focused more on skills rather than content.

While all states require social studies classes, not all require specific classes in government or civics. A minority of states mandate social studies tests; currently, there is a policy debate around mandatory state test requirements for civics. The Arizona nonprofit Joe Foss Institute is leading the Civics Education Initiative to make the U.S. citizenship exam a graduation requirement for high schools in all 50 states by 2017, the 230th anniversary of the passage of the U.S. Constitution. The first states to enact the requirement were Arizona and North Dakota; since the passage of this legislation in 2015, eleven other states have since passed similar requirements.

Not all educators like the concept of more standardized testing, though. One professor who conducts research on civic engagement says it is a one-dimensional approach to civic education and called it “teaching democracy like a game show.” Hawaii and Tennessee are two states that have enacted stricter civics requirements, not for testing but for civic engagement through experiential learning. In 2006, Hawaii initiated a “Participation in Democracy” high school course which includes an “action civics” component, where the student must select an actual problem and implement a solution. In 2012, Tennessee instituted requirements for project-based civic assessments in middle school and high school. Civic education is an evolving field with ongoing experimentation in best practices for teaching and learning.

Civic Education Innovations

Innovations to civic education are pursued by a variety of vested stakeholders, including individual educators, nonprofit organizations, and political leaders. Here are just a few examples of changes to the traditional civics curriculum that are strengthening students’ civic literacy and participation.

  • Media: With the proliferation of electronic news, many school districts have adopted media literacy civic frameworks to prepare students for civic participation in the digital age. This approach involves critical analysis of media and the use of media for individual and collaborative empowerment.
  • Teaching during elections: A study on Kids Voting USA, a nonprofit program that developed a curriculum to teach during election years, found that classroom discussions on the election, teachers’ encouragement of students’ opinion expression, and participation in get-out-the-vote programs were all influential in keeping students civically active in the long-term.
  • Games and online resources: Former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor founded iCivics in 2009, a set of interactive role-playing games and activities to teach civics. iCivics has four educational goals: student development of civic skills, knowledge, dispositions, and actions. Roughly one half of public middle school teachers use iCivics in their classrooms. iCivics has since partnered with the Library of Congress, the National Archives, the Newseum, and others to create the Civics Renewal Network, a platform with almost 1000 different civic educational resources for teachers and students. The Center for Civic Education hosts “We the People,” a curriculum based in mock congressional hearings that culminates in a national competition. They have also created a 60-second civics podcast.

iCivics.org Home Page

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Civic education is essential to the functioning of our democracy. Although civics has not been prioritized on the federal education landscape, states, local districts, and nonprofits have pursued innovative testing, curricular, and extra-curricular strategies to develop students who are civically literate, informed, and engaged. Civic education is the precursor to civic engagement, and civic engagement is the foundation of a free and working democratic government. As Thomas Jefferson said, “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.”

“If a nation expects to be ignorant and free in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.”

~ Thomas Jefferson

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