Civics Education is the Foundation for Global Citizenship

Students in a Model United Nations exercise (ITU Pictures/Flickr)

by Heather Loewecke

Updated November 6, 2018
Originally published October 19, 2016

International migration. The globalization of the workforce. Global warming. Poverty and inequality. Gun violence and terrorism. Technological advances and artificial intelligence. International trade wars.

There is growing sentiment that many of our greatest challenges and opportunities relate to the state of our politics and the health of our democracy. And while most Americans generally still believe in democratic ideals and values, increased polarization, political dysfunction, distrust in government institutions (including public schools), racial inequality, and the spread of misinformation are causing us to lose faith in our democracy.

In this context, educators must 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 and challenging landscape.

The Role of Education in Civics

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, forge a national identity based on shared ideals, and prepare people to become informed and responsible citizens. Each state’s constitution or public education statutes acknowledge the civic mission of schools.

Despite their 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, 23 percent of eighth graders, and 27 percent of fourth graders scored proficient or higher on the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) civics exam. (Results from the 2018 assessment will be released in 2019.)

Young adults can influence election results. Yet historically, 18-to-29-year-olds consistently vote at lower rates than all other age brackets. Only about 50 percent of eligible voters aged 18–29 voted in the 2016 general election, about the same as 2012. Roughly 20 percent of this group voted in the 2014 midterm elections, the lowest turnout for this demographic ever recorded for a federal election.

While the 2016 young adult electorate remained as racially diverse as it had been since the 2008 elections, there was an increase in white male voters. The most striking variation, however, was by education level: 80 percent of young adult voters had college experience, the highest in recent elections. But less than 20 percent had no college experience, nearly a 10-point decline from 2012 levels, and the lowest turnout of the past four elections. Although education levels are good predictors of civic engagement, they don't necessarily equate to civic knowledge: a 2017 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: Public conviction on the civic mission of schools has declined, as only 26 percent of Americans believe the main purpose of a public education is to prepare students for citizenship. A singular focus on basic skills and standardized test preparation has left little time and resources for the study of civics and related topics. Most students lack the interactive and participatory activities required for a well-rounded civics education that prepares them for engaged citizenship.

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.

Young Adults and Civic Engagement

Many young adults feel politically alienated, lacking strong identification with either major political party or believing that political decisions don't impact their lives. Others are distrustful of politicians, believing there is no one worth voting for. Many believe they don’t know enough about the issues to have a qualified vote. Election laws can also discourage some young adults from voting.

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. School suspensions and arrests, which are used more frequently on youth of color, depresses voting and volunteering rates, even for civically engaged youth.

Girls and young women are ahead of their male peers in most indicators of civic engagement, with one exception: elected office. Although there are signs of change, young women are less likely to be exposed to political information, encouraged to have political ambition, or feel qualified for political office compared to their male counterparts.

And 60 percent of rural youth perceive their communities to be "civic deserts," places with few civic opportunities. Given our country's systemic discrimination and workplace and educational inequity toward people of color, women, and the poor, these outcomes aren't surprising. But these differences in educational levels and life experiences shape young adults' perspectives on issues and influence their choices at the polls and in communities.

Schools and afterschool programs can turn this around. In order to safeguard our democracy and promote civic engagement and global consciousness, young people need a foundation in the history, values, and politics of the American democratic tradition, an understanding of how it fits into the global context, and opportunities to develop personal agency and the dispositions supportive of this form of government.

The 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 and efficacy. Youth participating in high-quality civics education or action civics 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 of their children's civic engagement.
  • Increased free expression and deliberation. Youth have higher electoral engagement, political knowledge, and informed voting when parents and teachers encourage them to discuss current events or controversial topics, and express opinions and disagreements.
  • Long-term civic commitment, participation, and life satisfaction. The more teens are exposed to high-quality civics education and community service in high school and through extracurricular activities, the more likely they are to volunteer and vote and have higher life satisfaction. In turn, civic participation may also foster educational opportunities and engagement. And, youth, regardless of race, gender, or ethnic background, are more likely to commit to democratic goals if they felt a sense of belonging and if teachers practiced a democratic ethic at school.
  • 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.

Practices for Effective Civics Education

The Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools outlines six proven practices and four emerging and complementary practices for effective civics education. Use of these practices has improved student performance when implemented with high quality. Altogether these practices include:

  1. Classroom Instruction: Provide instruction in civics, government, history, law, economics, and geography in ways that provoke analysis and critical thinking skills.
  2. Discussion of Current Events and Controversial Issues: 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.
  3. Service Learning: 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.
  4. Extracurricular Activities: Offer extracurricular activities that provide opportunities for young people to get involved in their schools or communities.
  5. Student Participation in School Governance: Encourage student participation in school governance.
  6. Simulations of Democratic Processes: Encourage students' participation in simulations of democratic processes and procedures.
  7. News Media Literacy Education: Teach students how to distinguish fake news from reliable news and to be effective producers of news.
  8. Action Civics: Allows students to choose and define problems in their community, develop and implement plans to address those problems, and reflect on their actions.
  9. Social and Emotional Learning (SEL): Support students with understanding and managing their emotions, setting and achieving positive goals, and feeling and showing empathy toward others.
  10. School Climate Reform: Use positive, not punitive, forms of discipline to promote a safe learning environment and enhance civic outcomes.

What's Being Done?

The Common Core State Standards (CCSS), released in 2010, include reading and analyzing for literary and historical significance several US foundational documents such as The Declaration of Independence, the Preamble to the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address under the English Language Arts (ELA) reading of informational texts standards for grades 11–12. To date, 41 states, the District of Columbia, four U.S. territories, and the Department of Defense Education Activity (DoDEA) have adopted the CCSS.

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. Every state includes social studies or civics in its standards or curriculum. At least 23 states have used the C3 framework to revise their social studies standards.

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. However, this did not garner much momentum until 2015 when the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) was signed into law.

Because the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act, ESSA's predecessor, was widely criticized for narrowing the curriculum with a primary focus on English language arts and mathematics, ESSA calls for a "well-rounded education," allowing for subjects such as civics and government, history, geography, and economics to enrich curriculum and educational experiences for all youth. In addition to required academic measures, states must include one non-academic indicator of school quality or student success in their accountability plans.

States have an opportunity to link civic education to academic and non-academic indicators, highlighted above, such as college- and career readiness, experiential learning, and improved school climate. ESSA also promotes school-community partnerships, making out-of-school time and community-based organizations ideal collaborators for providing experiential learning and action civics. States are still in the planning stages, with the first full year of ESSA implementation taking place during the 2019-20 school year. Currently, ten states and the District of Columbia include civics in their plans.

A 2018 inventory of states' civic education requirements by the Brown Center on Education Policy at Brookings reflects that the most commonly used proven practices from the list above include classroom instruction, with 45 states (including Washington, DC) requiring students to complete at least one semester of coursework in social studies, government, or civics to graduate.

Every state includes discussion of current events, and 40 include news media literacy. But only about half include simulations of democratic practices, and far fewer include service learning. Taken together, it’s clear that states prioritize knowledge building and discussion-based activities over participatory and applied components.

When it comes to assessment, 37 states require students to demonstrate proficiency on civics, social studies, or citizenship assessments. Tennessee and Washington also use project-based civics assessments to determine students' levels of civic knowledge and to reinforce skills.

Since 2014, the Civics Education Initiative has been advocating 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. Currently, 22 states have an exam modeled after the US Citizenship and Immigration Services naturalization test, but only ten require it for course completion or graduation. Another four states allow students to take the exam as an indicator of achievement or to win an award, such as a civics seal on their diploma.

Proponents of the Civics Education Initiative 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 civics 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.

State Examples

Florida and Illinois have some of the most rigorous requirements to date. Florida requires civics throughout students' K–12 education, beginning with an integration of content 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. The policy directly supports the first proven practice, noted above, and many teachers also implement several others, including discussion of current events, simulations, and service learning. Teachers also have access to online professional learning and curriculum materials. As a result, 7th graders' end-of-course civics exam scores have steadily improved since the law was mandated.

Illinois requires all youth take a semester-long civics course aligned with the revised social studies standards and focused on several of the proven practices, such as service learning, simulations of democratic processes, and deliberation about current issues. The legislation does not mandate any exam or form of accountability. Instead, it focuses on teacher professional development, resources, and stakeholder partnerships. High schools that can demonstrate effectiveness in elements necessary for sustaining a schoolwide commitment to high-quality civic learning, such as vision and leadership, curriculum, teacher professional development and peer support, school-community connections, and school climate are designated as Illinois Democracy Schools and can receive additional funding to support improved civic learning and teacher professional development.


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, appreciation of diversity, personal efficacy, and concern for the welfare of others.

According to the Center on Adolescence at Stanford and the Center for Multicultural Education at the University of Washington in Seattle, "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."

Civics Education Resources


  • 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.
  • Set up democratic classrooms/programs to facilitate engagement and to model effective democratic principles. Youth can create community agreements or rules 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.

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