by Heather Loewecke
The United States’ public education system emerged in the late 1800s with the aim of educating all American children in order to promote the goals of democracy and to prepare people to become informed and responsible citizens. Each state’s constitution or public education statutes acknowledge the civic mission of schools. Public conviction of the civic mission of schools has never wavered on the Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup annual poll on American attitudes about education.
The recent influx of immigrants from around the world has led to unprecedented diversity in the United States at the same time that democracy is advancing around the world. The globalization of the workforce, a need to solve transnational issues, and technological advances have required that educators reconsider what it takes to promote the goals of democracy while developing students to be college- and career-ready and productive members of society in this changing landscape. In order to promote civic engagement and global consciousness, young people need a foundation in the history, values, and politics of the American democratic tradition and an understanding of how it fits into the global context.
Despite the mission to promote a thriving democracy, American public schools are inadequately preparing students for participation in civic life. Only 24 percent of high school seniors scored proficient or higher on the 2010 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) civics exam. Proficiency levels for eighth graders on the 2014 exam remained about the same as in 2010 and 2008.
Only about 20 percent of young adults aged 18-29 voted in the 2014 elections, the lowest turnout for that demographic ever recorded for a federal election. And in the 2012 elections, youth voter turnout varied significantly by income and education levels, race/ethnicity, and gender, with perhaps the most striking variation by education levels: only 35 percent of young adults with no college experience voted compared with 60 percent of those with some college education. Although education levels are good predictors of civic engagement, they don’t necessarily equate to civic knowledge: a 2016 Annenberg Public Policy poll reflected that American adults know very little about the US government, with the majority of respondents unable to answer basic questions. For example, only 26 percent of respondents could correctly identify all three branches of the government.
Different arguments prevail for these mixed results: A singular focus on basic skills and standardized test preparation has left little time and resources for the study of civics and related topics. While teachers believe that civics education is important, there is little agreement on what should be prioritized or taught. Civics professional development for teachers is limited given competing priorities. And some educators are concerned that any discussion of politics will be viewed by parents or the media as partisan indoctrination. Many young adults feel disengaged from government, either distrustful of authority figures and those in office or questioning if their votes actually make an impact. Many believe they don’t know enough about the issues to have a qualified vote.
Then there is the “civic empowerment gap”: white, college-bound youth attending mid-to high socio-economic schools have more access to civic learning opportunities than peers who are low-income, non-college bound, or students of color. Many young adults who did not attend college believe they lack institutional opportunities to address large-scale social issues.
Benefits of Civic Education
There are several reported benefits of civics education:
- College and career readiness. Youth exposed to service learning through civics courses are more likely to go to college than those who were not. Additionally, high-quality civics activities foster the collaboration, communication, and critical thinking skills in demand by employers.
- Civic knowledge attainment. Youth receiving high-quality civics education have more confidence in their ability to make informed political decisions, increased knowledge about history and how to register to vote, increased ethical awareness and empathy, and a positive belief that their vote matters. Some parents’ political knowledge also increased as a result.
- Civic engagement and equality. The more teens are exposed to high-quality civics education in high school and through extracurricular activities, the more likely they are to be engaged in community service and voting as young adults. Universally available civic learning opportunities close the civic empowerment gap.
- Community economic health. There is a correlation between civic engagement levels and a community’s economic health and resilience.
- Dropout prevention and improved school climate. Civics education is correlated with a decreased dropout rate and a safe school environment.
What’s Being Done?
In late 2002, the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) and Carnegie Corporation of New York, in consultation with the Corporation for National and Community Service, convened a series of meetings with scholars and practitioners to determine the components of effective and feasible civic education programs, resulting in the manifesto “The Civic Mission of Schools.” The Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools was born. In 2011, the report was revised with evidence to support the Campaign’s Six Proven Practices for Effective Civic Learning. These practices include:
- Classroom Instruction: Schools should provide direct instruction in government, history, economics, law, and democracy in ways that provoke analysis and critical thinking skills.
- Discussion of Current Events and Controversial Issues: Schools should incorporate discussion of current local, national, and international issues and events into the classroom, particularly those that young people view as important to their lives.
- Service Learning: Schools should design and implement programs that provide students with the opportunity to apply what they learn through performing community service that is linked to the formal curriculum and classroom instruction.
- Extracurricular Activities: Schools should offer opportunities for young people to get involved in their schools or communities outside of the classroom.
- School Governance: Schools should encourage student participation in school governance.
- Simulations of Democratic Processes: Schools should encourage students to participate in simulations of democratic processes and procedures.
In 2012, the US Department of Education released "Advancing Civic Learning and Engagement in Democracy,” a call to action to reinvigorate civic learning and engagement for youth, families, communities, and leaders across education, government, business, and philanthropy.
In 2013, the National Council for the Social Studies published the College, Career and Civic Life (C3) Framework for Social Studies State Standards. This framework aligns with the Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts and Literacy in History/Social Studies. It is meant to guide states as they revise their own standards and policies and to help practitioners create a more robust and rigorous social studies curriculum that promotes the development of 21st century skills and active civic engagement in youth. At least eight states have used the C3 framework to revise their social studies standards.
Florida and Illinois have passed the most rigorous laws to date. Florida requires civic education throughout students’ K-12 education, beginning with an integration into ELA classes, followed by a middle school civics course with an exam that counts for 30 percent of the course grade and impacts teacher evaluation and a school’s performance rating. Illinois requires all youth take a civics course aligned with the revised social studies standards and focused on several of the “Six Proven Practices” noted above, such as service learning, simulations of democratic processes, and deliberation about current issues.
While all but four states require civics education for high school graduation, only 21 have a civics or government assessment. The Civics Education Initiative advocates for high school students to pass the United States citizenship exam in order to graduate. Arizona was the first state in the nation to make passing this test a graduation requirement. Several other states have followed suit or have similar pending legislation. Proponents argue that “what gets tested gets taught” and that this assessment at least promotes the teaching of basic historical and government knowledge. Critics argue that another high-stakes test in the era of standardized testing will squelch the interest in, and desire for, civics education by both teachers and students. Additionally, critics suggest that if the primary purpose of civic education is to promote not only informed, but also active, citizenship, then the focus should be on providing youth with regular opportunities to discuss social and political issues and to identify and address civic problems.
Arguably, testing does provide a limited view of youth civic competencies. Civic education should entail more than rote learning about the US Constitution or government. It should also include hands-on, community- and issue-based experiential learning that promotes informed and ethical decision-making; develops a sense of agency, social responsibility, and the ability to act on issues of local and global significance; and creates civic dispositions such as civility, tolerance, respect, compromise, toleration of diversity, personal efficacy, and concern for the welfare of others. According to the Stanford Center on Adolescence and the Center for Multicultural Education, “Increasing the priority given to educating for global understanding and concern should go hand in hand with strengthening education for US citizenship and civic engagement. Instead of standing in opposition to each other, the two goals represent complementary aspects of a single, larger picture. A complete civic education is one that produces graduates who understand the political systems of the United States, who feel a commitment to its national ideals, but who also respect and feel connected to people living in other societies around the world.”
Here are some ideas to get started:
- Study the components of the Constitution and the historical contexts for key amendments. Youth discuss and draft new amendments they believe should be added. Students write a school or classroom constitution that articulates the rights and responsibilities of all participants.
- Explore the three branches of the government, their roles, and the balance of power. Do a role play to explore how the three branches of the school or program (educators, principal/director, students) interact and balance powers to accomplish their goals.
- Study and compare and contrast the different forms of government that exist around the world. Debate the pros and cons of each type.
- Set up a program/school government or youth advisory council so that youth have a voice in policy and decision-making.
- Center for Civic Education
- Bill of Rights Institute
- Annenberg Center
- National Constitution Center
- Teaching Civics
- Study the issues on the Supreme Court docket. Use organized deliberation to have youth debate the issues and make a ruling based upon law research and precedent.
- Explore the structure of the legal system and key issues such as due process, equal protection, and the right to a trial with a jury of peers. Implement mock trials on literary conflicts or a campus/program or community issue so youth can experience each role in the process. Explore the juvenile justice system and youth courts. Discuss the effectiveness of these systems and needed changes to the systems. Set up a youth court system as a supportive peer-to-peer approach to solving program or campus discipline issues.
- Review how a bill becomes a law. Youth can create an infographic, a children’s book, or their own School House Rock video or Flocabulary song to explain the process to peers or younger youth. Look at the role of Congress. Study how members decide which way to vote on a bill.
- Explore the electoral process in local, state, and federal elections. Discuss the role of the electoral college and the use of primaries and caucuses for selecting presidential candidates. Study how a presidential candidate can win without winning the popular vote and debate whether the electoral college is still needed.
- Study suffrage, voting requirements, voter districts, and the history of voter access and rights. Debate whether or not the voting age should be lowered to include more youth. Debate whether current voting districting processes and voter laws are constitutional.
- Study candidates’ campaign platforms and the relevant issues in current elections, such as immigration, trade, or equal rights. Youth can act as campaign advisors by writing, or rewriting, candidates’ key platform messages so that they resonate with different constituencies. Or, youth can create a graphic or website to help peers understand where the candidates stand on the issues. Students can also debate the issues as if they were the candidates while peers create questions and explore the role of a debate moderator. Or, students can write a political cartoon on a candidate’s position.
- Review candidates’ campaign strategies (ads, slogans, branding, use of social media, and speech content) during the election process. Debate what worked and what did not. Have youth act as the campaign manager for a local, state, or federal candidate and create a media campaign. Or, youth can write and deliver political speeches on key issues.
- Explore the history and platforms of the major political parties. Youth can create and name their own political party and platform based upon current needs and pressing issues in their school/program or in local, state, or federal elections.
- Review the debate formats and past debates. Students can fact check candidates’ statements, analyze the debates, and write a review as a political analyst.
- Kids Voting USA
- PBS Election Collection
- The New York Times Learning Network
- National Student/Parent Mock Election
Deliberation and Action
- Discuss current events, civil rights, and human rights issues that are important to youth. Use effective civil discourse methods and a range of debate strategies to promote healthy and safe deliberation on topics. Use service learning to have youth conduct action or service campaigns that change conditions while developing their civic mindset and sense of social responsibility.
- Set up democratic classrooms/programs to facilitate engagement and to model effective democratic principles. Youth can create community agreements to foster group accountability for the learning process. Set up class meetings so that youth can express their values and ideas. Create leadership roles so that youth are regularly co-managing learning activities or running procedures. Ensure that youth have time to reflect on and synthesize their learning.
- Promote youth engagement in extracurricular activities that will build leadership skills and civic responsibility, such as 4H, Rotary Club, Honor Society, debate, Future Business Leaders of America, Model UN, and Key Club.