The NCSL Blog


By Megan McClure

Millions of American students and adults are unfamiliar with how their government works and experts are sounding the alarm about a crisis in civics education.

Lucian Spataro“Students are not learning how to run our country, how government is meant to operate as outlined in the Constitution and Bill of Rights, and more importantly, the history behind how our country came to be—the philosophy behind America’s values,” according to the Joe Foss Institute. 

This prompted the Institute to create the Civics Education Initiative. The goal of the CEI is to make passing the U.S. citizenship test a requirement for high school graduation. The reasoning behind the Initiative is simple: Civics education is necessary to produce well-informed, understanding citizens, committed to participating in the American system.

The initiative recommends teaching and testing students on American civics. Fifteen states and the U.S. Virgin Islands have passed bills requiring high school students to pass the U.S. citizenship test to graduate or that civics be included in existing courses or tests.

Twenty states are considering similar legislation in 2017. The ultimate goal of the CEI is the enactment of legislation in all 50 states by Sept. 17, 2017, the 230th anniversary of the U.S. Constitution. NCSL spoke with Lucian Spataro Jr., chief academic officer and vice president of legislative affairs for the Joe Foss Institute, to talk about what sets the Initiative apart and what legislators need to know when considering civics education legislation.

Q: What do you feel are the most important things for legislators to consider and know about the initiative and derivative legislation?

"We as an organization firmly believe in the primary goal of public education as envisioned by Thomas Jefferson to 'instill in our youth the civic virtues that sustain our fledgling republic' so that’s the premise upon which we move forward and with that idea in mind. We firmly believe that our legislative leaders, on behalf of their constituents can and should set clear expectations. And so in this particular case, an expectation would be that students would know minimally what an immigrant coming into the country needs to know to become a citizen.

"It is this baseline of knowledge that we think is really important and can spur the movement of civics from the back burner, where it now sits, up to the front burner. Our real important objective is to bring a big bright light to shine on what Justice O’Connor terms the 'quiet crisis in education.' From that standpoint, we would like legislators to know that we believe in what Thomas Jefferson believed in, that this is first and foremost the role of public education.

"We’d like the legislators to know that this isn’t a standardized test as they have been characterized over the last couple of decades. It is very different than kids taking time out of class to go to a lab and spend hours on scantron sheets filling in bubbles. This is a very different kind of test.

"This initiative isn’t tied to consequences like teachers’ salaries, school funding and having a roof on the building. This is a test for kids, in the classroom, at the school level and it’s an initiative that is tied to performance by kids.

"There aren’t consequences for teachers, or administrators or schools like with other standardized tests that have popped up in the last couple decades around STEM. This initiative and the test are not about consequences to schools, teachers and administrators. This is about working with kids, at the school level, in the classroom doing normal tests and assessments. It is very different from what people naturally recoil against when they think of standardized testing.

"It is also very important for legislators to know and understand the recent history that has gotten us here, to the point that the Civics Education Initiative is necessary.

"A couple decades ago the country began to focus on STEM and parallel with that refocusing on STEM, standardized testing became the way to measure success and performance in STEM, and then also, simultaneously (not in an orchestrated or deliberate sense), money and funding consequences began to be tied to the results of these tests. So when money is tied to these results, grades are reported out to parents, communities and legislatures, these are consequences that had never before been associated with assessment.

"With the focus on STEM, civics and the other “soft sciences” were carved out of the testing platform and they automatically went to the back seat of the bus. and all that we are trying to do is move civics back to the front seat where it used to be. So all the subjects are all together.

"We also wish for our initiative to help teachers who teach these subjects, such as civics and government, to feel equally valued and authoritative in the classroom same level of confidence that their discipline is being emphasized. Kids notice this also, whether civics and these disciplines and the teachers who teach these subjects are being valued and emphasized in schools.

"This is a test at the school level. A test that kids do all day long. It is assessment of their knowledge of very basic foundational facts around civics, that they need to know to go on and do more critical learning and higher level complex discussions around civics.

"Just like the multiplication tables are necessary before you go on to do higher level math equations. Just like knowing and understanding the periodic table is necessary before you go on to do higher level biology and chemistry.

"These are very foundational facts that we all need to know to effect change in our government and operate our country. Kids need to know this when they are in school and are going to become well informed, engaged, responsible citizens who, when they come out of school, vote and participate."

Additional resources

Megan McClure is senior staff assistant with NCSL's Legislative Staff Services Program.

Email Megan


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About the NCSL Blog

This blog offers updates on the National Conference of State Legislatures' research and training, the latest on federalism and the state legislative institution, and posts about state legislators and legislative staff. The blog is edited by NCSL staff and written primarily by NCSL's experts on public policy and the state legislative institution.