STATE LEGISLATURES MAGAZINE | april 2015
The level of civics knowledge among most Americans is nothing to write home about.
Call it civics literacy, or perhaps more accurately, civics illiteracy. Survey after survey shows that Americans’ knowledge of how their government works is at an alarming low. And educators and legislators alike point to what they see as a primary reason: a big gap in civics classes in public schools.
“The whole concept behind having public schools in the first place was to teach civics so we would have good citizens,” says Florida Representative Charles McBurney (R). “A student may be great at Shakespeare or a math whiz, but if students don’t understand our republic and how our government works and we lose our republic as a result, all the rest of their education won’t do us any good.”
State legislators like McBurney, along with organizations dedicated to civics education, are joining forces to turn the tide. They hope to expand civics engagement among young people to increase voter turnout as well as community involvement and participation in all levels of government. And their efforts encompass a range of viewpoints about how to teach civics and make it relevant in the 21st century.
Arizona is the first state to require high school seniors to pass a civics test to graduate, starting in 2017. The test, the same one immigrants take when seeking citizenship, asks questions such as “What are the two parts of the U.S. Congress?” Students must correctly answer 60 of the 100 questions. The fast-moving bill left committee, passed both chambers and was signed by Governor Doug Ducey (R) in one day. Supporters said it will help ensure an informed citizenry; critics said it is a waste of time and money and burdens schools with an additonal test.
“I’ve read that anything of real value is worth appropriately measuring,” Senator Steve Yarbrough (R) told The Arizona Republic. “I would submit that a minimal understanding of American civics is of real value and therefore worthy of measurement.”
What They Don’t Know
The recent spotlight on civics education is due in part to retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who pointed to results of surveys by the Annenberg Public Policy Center as well as the National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as the nation’s report card, administered by the U.S. Department of Education.
The oft-quoted 2011 Annenberg surveys showed that more respondents (two-thirds) knew the name of at least one of the judges on “American Idol” than the name of the chief justice of the Supreme Court (15 percent) or the three branches of government (one-third).
Students who took the nation’s report card civics test in 2011 did poorly as well. Only 27 percent of fourth-graders, 22 percent of eighth-graders and 24 percent of 12th-graders scored proficient or higher in civics on questions involving such topics as the Bill of Rights, the Constitution, the Supreme Court and the three branches of government.
The results follow a decades-long downward trend, according to Peter Levine, director of Tufts University’s Center for Information and Research on Civics Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE).
“All evidence is that [civics knowledge] is weaker than it was 30 years ago,” Levine says.
Calling the state of civics education a “crisis,” O’Connor founded icivics.org, a nonprofit group that teaches civics through Web-based games and other resources available to students, teachers and schools. And she continues to travel across the country speaking on the topic.
Educators and others say the decline is due in part to a lack of emphasis on civics classes in favor of math and reading.
“Arguably, one of the greatest factors undermining high-quality civics education in schools today are the requirements of state assessments and the federal No Child Left Behind Act, which largely ignore the civics mission of schools in favor of concentrating on math and reading,” according to Silver Spring, Md.-based Campaign for the Civics Mission of Schools.
The campaign works to expand civics learning in schools and in 2011 issued its updated Guardian of Democracy report, which outlines the challenges facing civics learning and makes recommendations for effective education practices.
A 2010 survey of civics and social studies teachers reported that 45 percent of the respondents say social studies curriculum at their high school had been de-emphasized, and 70 percent say social studies classes are a lower priority because of pressure to show progress on statewide math and language arts tests.
The Calabasas, Calif.-based Center for Civics Education, which was established to provide free K-12 curriculum and programs on the Constitution, the Bill of Rights and other related topics to public schools, had been funded by the U.S. Department of Education since 1986. It served about 3 million students a year and had coordinators in every state. But Congress cut off the center’s $26.5 million in funds in 2011.
“That was nearly all the money the federal government put into civics education,” says Charles Quigley, the center’s executive director. “The Department of Education takes no leadership, and Congress won’t put funding into these programs.”
While the center has had to cut back, it’s looking for new sources of funding and is encouraging its coordinators to work with their respective state legislatures, Quigley says.
Making a Comeback?
Some states already have instituted major new legislation requiring civics education and some form of accountability. Others have mandated task forces to study the issue. The efforts encompass a variety of approaches to standards, mandates, testing and assessment, and professional development.
Nearly all states require at least one civics class. Some have state-designed social studies tests, and a few require students to pass a social studies test to graduate from high school. A handful of states have tests specifically in civics and American government, according to CIRCLE.
“Most states actually do have requirements for civics,” says CIRCLE’s Levine. “But it’s probably too little and it’s probably not effective enough. Not every state has standards for civics.”
The Denver-based National Center for Learning and Civics Engagement has sorted the different efforts by states into what Director Paul Baumann calls “buckets” of approaches.
“We’re starting to see recommendations taken up on various levels: mandated task forces, mandated assessments, statewide initiatives, some administrative directives from governors and even, surprisingly enough, the judiciary branch,” Baumann says. “I think—I hope—we may be on the cusp of a resurgence of interest in students becoming better civics actors.”
Whatever the approach, Baumann, along with many of his peers, sees three necessary elements:
1. Civics needs to be more than a couple of half-credit courses. It should be integrated throughout the curriculum and across all grade levels.
2. Teachers and other educators must receive proper professional development as well as license and certification requirements so they can teach civics effectively.
3. Finally, “we need to think more about school accountability,” Baumann says. “The completion rate and the success rate should be part of a school’s accountability score.”
State legislatures—including those in Alaska, California, Illinois, Massachusetts, Oregon and Virginia—have mandated task forces to analyze civics knowledge in schools and make recommendations for improvements.
A Trio of Standouts
Civics education leaders point to three states that have passed innovative legislation in civics learning, each with a different approach.
In Tennessee, legislators passed a bill in 2012 mandating project-based civics assessments in middle school and high school, the first of its kind in the country. The projects are designed to show a student’s mastery of content that includes public policy; the U.S. and Tennessee constitutions; and the structure of federal, state and local governments.
“There is a lack of fundamental understanding about how our governmental system works and why it matters,” says Tennessee Senator Mark Norris (R), who sponsored the bill. “I see it every day in the legislature when we’re in session. People come to committee hearings and they have no understanding of the process.”
Norris says the project-based approach is key. “The students design their own projects and get out and do them. To get students to really engage in a way that sticks, they have to get their hands dirty,” Norris says.
Janis Kyser, head of the Tennessee Center for Civics Learning and Engagement, which works with the schools, says most of the first year was spent on professional development and that schools are still working on assessments. She says students’ projects, which are detailed on the center’s website, range from child abuse to smoking to homelessness. The projects must include a public policy or governmental component. “Not to sound melodramatic,” Norris says, “but I see this as survival of the republic.”
In Hawaii, civics teachers got a real-world lesson of their own in civics when they joined forces to defeat a proposal by the state board of education to repeal a 2006 law requiring a high school civics course. The course, “Participation in Democracy,” requires that students understand the U.S. government and other civics topics. They must select a problem to research and create and implement an action plan.
Senator Les Ihara Jr. (D) provided political and strategic advice to the educators, who ultimately persuaded the board of education to vote unanimously against the repeal.
“I was surprised that teachers who teach civics were not very knowledgeable about how to take action. They teach civics from an academic standpoint,” Ihara says. “This was a very constructive exercise for them. Civics should teach people how to participate in policymaking from neighborhoods to local government to state and federal government.”
The Florida Legislature passed the Justice Sandra Day O’Connor Civics Education Act in 2010 requiring middle-school students to pass a semester-long civics class test before they can be promoted to high school. In 2013, the Legislature changed the law to require only that the test would account for 30 percent of the student’s final grade.
The course covers branches of government, political processes and key documents including the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. The law also requires that the reading curriculum in every grade level contain civics education materials.
McBurney says he was disappointed that the bill was watered down. “I think we need to know that students know the subject matter,” he says. “But I’m glad it’s still 30 percent of the student’s final grade.”
Even more important than the final grade for McBurney, however, is the hope that civics knowledge will translate into civics engagement. ”Not just voting,” he says. “But once they understand how things work, the goal is that they participate in the process, engage in civics activities.”
Civics engagement is what inspired Hawaii’s Ihara to organize a legislative intern program. Students are attached to specific legislators and learn firsthand how state laws are made.
“You don’t have a lot of youth interested in legislation,” Ihara says. “This is a way to incorporate their voices.”
All Play a Role
CIRCLE’s Levine also argues that responsibility for civics learning should not be restricted to schools, which in fact may not even be the best way to attract young people’s interest. Newspapers, nonprofit and volunteer organizations, families, social media and the Internet all have a role.
It might be too early to tell if these renewed efforts at civics learning are paying off. Youth voting trends continue to be at least one concrete measure of engagement. And the trends show that the number of young people who vote has remained fairly static.
CIRCLE reports that 45 percent of all those eligible to vote between the ages of 18 and 29 voted in the 2012 presidential election, down from 51 percent in 2008. Voters in that age group represented about 19 percent of all voters.
Still, CIRCLE and other groups say that civics education increases the likelihood that young people will vote. In addition, once they register and go to the polls the first time, they are more likely to vote in subsequent elections.
Says Florida’s McBurney: “If you want young people to be engaged, you have to hit them early.”
Encouraging the Young to Vote
Last November, 16- and 17-year-olds in Takoma Park, Md., voted in the city’s municipal elections, making the community the nation’s first to lower the voting age from 18 to 16.
Last May, Louisiana became the first state in the country to automatically pre-register 16-year-olds to vote when they apply for their driver’s license.
The changes are among efforts by state and local governments and voting organizations to encourage young people to go to the polls and establish lifelong habits of voting.
“The earlier you vote, the more likely you are to become a habitual voter, and you can often have the biggest impact at the local level,” says Patricia Hart, project director of Promote Our Vote at FairVote.
FairVote, which is based in Takoma Park, helped lead the effort to lower the voting age in municipal elections.
The nonprofit group also promotes lowering the age for pre-registration.
A handful of states allow eligible voters to pre-register to vote at age 16, while at least nine states allow pre-registration at age 17. Still more states allow teens to register if they will be 18 before the next election.
And about 20 states allow 17-year-olds to vote in primaries if they will be 18 at the time of the corresponding general election.
Louisiana lowered the age to be able to pre-register to vote from 17 to 16 when teens apply for their driver’s license. It also is unique in the United States because it requires the Office of Motor Vehicles to register 16- and 17-year-olds to vote unless they explicitly decline.
“It’s basically an opt-out system,” Hart says. “It’s a great policy that really helps keep their rolls updated and gets young people involved early.”
We Vote Hawaii
Students in grades K-12 in Hawaii vote in their own version of general elections as part of We Vote Hawaii.
In 2012, more than 120,000 students, using their parents’ precincts and districts, voted for the candidates of their choice on nearly exact replicas of the statewide ballot.
When Vote Hawaii was first established in 1996, students voted at official sites on paper ballots for the major candidates. In 2002, Hawaiian students were the first in the nation to vote statewide by computer.
The website provides practice ballots and includes information about the issues and the candidates that students can study before they cast an official ballot.
We Vote Hawaii is an affiliate of Kids Voting USA, which also has student vote programs in other states.
The organization aims to prepare youth for a lifetime of voting as well as encourage adult voter participation by involving parents in their children’s voting preparation.
“It’s a way to encourage civic engagement and education and is a meaningful measure of how kids see themselves participating in government,” says Paul Baumann, director of the National Center for Learning and Civic Engagement.
Are you smarter than a fifth-grader? What about a high school senior? Arizona will require high school seniors to pass a citizenship test in order to graduate, starting in 2017. Would your constituents pass? Take this quiz. The first four questions are from the U.S. citizenship study guide. The rest come from NCSL experts and are designed for our members, who know a thing or two about government. You can check your answers at the bottom of the page.
1. Under the U.S. Constitution, some powers belong to the states. What is one power of the states?
A. Make treaties
B. Create an army
C. Provide schooling and education
D. Mint coins or print money
2. How many justices are on the U.S. Supreme Court?
3. Who was president during the Great Depression and World War II?
A. Franklin Roosevelt
B. Harry Truman
C. Calvin Coolidge
D. Herbert Hoover
4. The Federalist Papers supported the passage of the U.S. Constitution. Name one of the writers.
A. John Adams
B. George Washington
C. James Madison
D. Thomas Jefferson
5. Which of the following statements about separation of powers is not true?
A. Separation of powers refers to the division of government responsibilities.
B. An absolute separation of powers exists within every democratic system.
C. Separation of powers inhibits the concentration of power.
D. Separation of power encourages cooperation among the branches of government.
6. With only one exception among the states, who ultimately determines if a state constitutional amendment is adopted?
A. The governor
B. The state legislature
C. A vote of the people
D. The State Supreme Court
(Bonus: Which state is the exception?)
7. Which of the following is not true about veto powers?
A. The definition of veto is the power or right given to one branch of government to stop an action of another branch.
B. Congress and all state legislatures have the power to overturn a veto by the chief executive (president or governor).
C. Most governors have the power to veto individual items or words contained in laws passed by the legislature.
D. The president has the power to veto individual items or words contained in laws passed by Congress.
8. Which of the following is false?
A. Each state has its own constitution.
B. The federal constitution takes precedence over state constitutions when there are conflicts.
C. Most state constitutions are shorter than the federal constitution.
D. Some state constitutions can be changed by the initiative and referendum process.
Extra Credit: True or False
9. Each county in a state has the same number of state senators, regardless of size.
10. Local governments (cities, counties, towns) typically have no powers beyond those granted to them from their state constitution or state legislature.
11. All state senators serve six-year terms.
12. In addition to the 50 states and the District of Columbia, five commonwealths or territories make up the United States.
Jane Hoback is a freelance writer based in Denver.
5. B—No democratic system exists with an absolute separation
of powers or an absolute lack of separation of powers. Governmental powers and responsibilities intentionally overlap.
6. C, Bonus: Delaware