Restoring Civics Education

Using Education To Create A Politically Informed And Engaged Population

WHAT YOU CAN DO...

  • Visit https://www.civicsrenewalnetwork.org/ to support the efforts of the Civics Renewal Network, a group of 30 non-partisan organizations committed to advancing civics education and providing teachers with free, high-quality resources.

By Gillian Hand

Following an era of shockingly low political participation, activism, and awareness, we find ourselves in a fiercely polarized political climate. A study from the Pew Research Center found that only a third of Americans can name the three branches of the United States government, much less their functions and privileges.[1] It is evident that the American population suffers from extreme ignorance on the concepts of government, limiting the number of citizens who fulfill their civic duties and participate actively in our democracy. Although the 2016 election certainly launched an increase in youth activism, only 23% of eighth graders performed at or above the proficiency level on the National Assessment of Educational Progress civics exam, indicating that the lack of civic knowledge stems from the curriculum at local schools.[2] While STEM opportunities and courses are undeniably essential to youth education, their growing domination has pushed civics education aside, discontinuing equally important government-based educational offerings.[3] In this era of extreme polarization, it is crucial that schools across the nation prepare their students to become active citizens in American democracy by providing them with knowledge and abilities that will keep these future voters engaged throughout their lives.

        A key player in the push to create engaged and informed American citizens is the Civics Education Initiative. This program requires that all high school students pass a basic test about American history and politics with questions taken from the United States Citizenship Civics Test. By bringing civics back into the classroom, students could learn more about the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, how the government is meant to operate, and the founding ideologies behind American values.[4] While the use of the citizenship test certainly has its merits, critics argue that the exam does not truly measure an individual’s comprehension of the material and creates another obstacle to graduation. Some states have instead opted to mandate civics classes, provide teachers with specific curricula, designate community service as a graduation requirement, or make Advanced Placement classes more available to the student population.[5] The Civics Education Initiative highlights various factors that have essentially functioned as roadblocks to effective civics education at the school level. Beyond the widespread emphasis on STEM education, the Initiative highlights the growth of standardized testing as another opponent to civics; because standard testing has become a popular method of measuring performance, teachers are prompted to prioritize the exam material in their teaching, pushing civics courses and lessons aside.[6]

Colorado, for example, demonstrates the true value of comprehensive civics education in schools. The only statewide graduation requirement in Colorado is to complete a government and civics course, and schools offer a variety of initiatives such as “Judicially Speaking,” a program that teaches students about the role of the judicial branch in American politics, to fulfill this requirement. The Colorado Department of Education does its part by providing teachers with course guidelines and resources, helping them instruct students on topics including the structure of the government, responsibilities of citizenship, and methods of public participation.[7]

So, what establishes the foundation of a strong civics education? The Brookings Institution highlights three crucial components: knowledge, skills, and dispositions. “Knowledge” refers to a basic understanding of government structures, processes, and concepts while “skills” references the abilities needed to be a responsible and active participant in American democracy. “Dispositions” indicates the important internal characteristics of an informed citizen, including a sense of civic duty and a genuine concern for the welfare of others.[8] Yet while civics courses are undeniably essential to the creation of a politically engaged population, education experts have emphasized the importance of interactive and participatory learning. To truly understand the democratic process and the functions of the American government, students should be exposed to real, experiential learning opportunities. A recent Brookings Institution study showed that, while 42 states require at least one civics course in their schools, only 26 states and Washington D.C. included hands-on educational offerings. To fix this deficiency, experts encourage activities including simulations, community service opportunities, discussions of current events, participation in student government, and lessons in topics such as news media literacy[9].

In regard to classroom learning, the materials and objectives emphasized in civics courses are starting to experience adjustments. The College Board recently revamped the Advanced Placement United States Government and Politics exam to encourage stronger civics education for high school students. Leaders of the College Board remarked that conditions under the current administration have fed a growing perception that college campuses are no longer safe for the free exchange of ideas and debate, making stronger educational preparation even more important; executives hope that all students applying to college are experts of all five freedoms of the First Amendment, not just Freedom of Speech. The new AP Government and Politics test, remodeled to teach young people these values, is built on a knowledge of the Constitution as well as 15 Supreme Court Cases and nine important documents that experts believe every American should know. Using their knowledge from this course, a class in New Jersey was even credited in a Senate committee report for their content contribution to the Civil Rights Cold Case Records Collection Act.[10] When given the tools to become active participants in the political world, young people can evidently make their mark on American democracy.

Studies on civics education certainly reveal the need for stronger programs and offerings in schools across the nation. As recent bursts of youth political activism have revealed the capacity for engagement and influence among young people, it is our nation’s duty to provide them with the lessons they need to become informed citizens who are eager to participate in American politics. However, it is clear that individual state standards are needed to ensure universality in civics education; schools across the nation must implement efficient and comprehensive programs that instruct all young people on the importance of civic activism[11]. By igniting a sense of civic duty in young citizens, schools can establish a lifelong commitment to political participation and awareness, thereby ensuring a more knowledgeable population in the future.

 


[1] “Civics Education Initiative .” Civics Education Initiative: 100 Facts Every High School Student Should Know, 2019, civicseducationinitiative.org/.

[2] Shapiro, Sarah, and Catherine Brown. “A Look at Civics Education in the United States.” American Federation of Teachers, 11 June 2018, www.aft.org/ae/summer2018/shapiro_brown.

[3] “Civics Education Initiative”

[4] Ibid.

[5] Shaprio and Brown, “A Look at Civics Education in the United States”

[6] McClure, Megan. “Tackling the American Civics Education Crisis .” LegisBrief: A Quick Look into Important Issues of the Day, National Conference of State Legislatures , 2017, www.ncsl.org/LinkClick.aspx?fileticket=kBr_Ti5RdHE%3D&tabid=31155&portalid=1.

[7]  Shaprio and Brown, “A Look at Civics Education in the United States”

[8] Hansen, Michael, et al. “2018 Brown Center Report on American Education: An Inventory of State Civics Requirements.” Brookings, The Brookings Institution, 5 July 2018, www.brookings.edu/research/2018-brown-center-report-on-american-education-an-inventory-of-state-civics-requirements/.

[9] Mann Levesque, Elizabeth. “What Does Civics Education Look like in America?” Brookings, The Brookings Institution, 24 July 2018, www.brookings.edu/blog/brown-center-chalkboard/2018/07/23/what-does-civics-education-look-like-in-america/.

[10] Friedman, Thomas L. “The Two Codes Your Kids Need to Know.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 12 Feb. 2019, www.nytimes.com/2019/02/12/opinion/college-board-sat-ap.html.

[11] Hansen, Michael, et al. “2018 Brown Center Report on American Education: An Inventory of State Civics Requirements”.