school bus parked outside capitol building for field trip

A field trip to the state capitol is a staple of many students’ civics education. Despite such efforts, surveys indicate that many Americans lack basic knowledge of governmental structures and national history.

Mapping a Way to Better Civics Education

By Benjamin Olneck-Brown | April 29, 2021 | State Legislatures News | Print

After several years of renewed attention to and interest in civics education, a new coalition of scholars, advocates and policymakers is introducing a unique and comprehensive road map to approaching the teaching of civics in American schools. In state legislatures, policymakers are responding to bipartisan calls for improved civics education with measures that would require new courses and assessments, diversify curricula and integrate civics with other instruction.

In 2018, a major report from the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, identified grave concerns with the state of civics education in the United States. At the time, report authors found that requirements to teach and assess civics were limited in most states when compared with other subjects, with most states requiring less than a full year of civics and 10 states lacking any civics coursework requirement. The last time the National Assessment of Education Progress civics exam was administered, also in 2018, the average score for eighth-graders was well below proficient, and scores had not meaningfully increased in 20 years. These findings are compounded by poor U.S. performance on other measures of civics literacy, such as low voter participation rates and surveys indicating that many Americans lack basic knowledge of governmental structures and national history.

The last time the National Assessment of Education Progress civics exam was administered, in 2018, the average score for eighth-graders was well below proficient.

All these factors have prompted renewed interest in civics education. The CAP report identified shortcomings not only in civics course requirements, but also in curricula and standards, calling most requirements “heavy on knowledge, but light on building skills and agency for civic engagement.” Concerns are not limited to the left side of the political spectrum. Frederick Hess, director of educational policy studies at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, convened a cross-ideological working group last year that identified a shared belief in the need for more stringent civics requirements and standards. The group noted differences between liberals and conservatives in how to teach certain aspects of American history, particularly related to racism; how to engage students in current events; and whether to emphasize civic engagement skills through direct action. As attention and conversation have grown, some see opportunities for large-scale, bipartisan action to improve civics education in the United States.

New Road Map Aims to Change Conversation

Earlier this year, a diverse, cross-partisan coalition of more than 300 leaders in civics education, funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities, launched a new effort to achieve nationwide excellence in civics education under the banner Educating for American Democracy. The coalition’s “Roadmap to Educating for American Democracy” promotes approaches to content frameworks and pedagogical practices that are intended to:

  • Inspire students to want to become involved in their constitutional democracy and help to sustain our republic.
  • Tell a full and complete narrative of America’s plural yet shared story.
  • Celebrate the compromises needed to make our constitutional democracy work.
  • Cultivate civic honesty and patriotism that leaves space to both love and critique this country.
  • Teach both history and civics through a timeline of events and themes that run through those events.

According to experts at Harvard and Arizona State universities who led the project, EAD’s road map responds to increasingly polarized debates over the teaching of U.S. history by “promot[ing] reckoning with hard histories in the United States and shared recognition of the unique achievements of American democracy.” Writing in The Wall Street Journal, a bipartisan group of six former education secretaries advocate for “teaching and learning that pursues an account of U.S. constitutional democracy that is honest about the wrongs of the past without falling into cynicism, and appreciative of the American founding without tipping into adulation.”

The EAD road map builds on previous national efforts to promote high-quality civics education supported across the political spectrum, such as the College, Career and Civic Life (C3) Framework for social studies standards promoted by the National Council for the Social Studies. Like the road map, these standards—adopted in at least 23 states—center inquiry, civic participation and application of knowledge to students’ lives before and after graduation. Efforts aimed at improving civics education policy include the nonpartisan CivXNow Coalition’s menu of policy options for increasing rigor, applicability and quality in civics education.

Legislatures Prioritize Civics Education

In recent sessions, state legislators have addressed students’ civics learning, particularly by passing new course requirements, standards and graduation requirements. For example, in 2017, Massachusetts established a civics trust fund to promote civics learning and engagement, particularly in underserved schools. A 2019 Illinois bill required a semester of civics instruction in middle school, while 2017 laws in Washington and New Hampshire mandated standalone high school civics courses. And, in 2019, Nebraska, Tennessee and Texas all instituted a graduation requirement for high school students to pass a written test equivalent to the U.S. naturalization test.

This year, legislators have again been actively considering civics legislation. For example, an enacted Utah resolution encourages all school districts to review their civics instruction, and Indiana enacted new requirements for a one-semester middle school civics course. In all, civics legislation introduced in at least 26 states includes efforts to fund professional development for civics teachers; collect data on civics assessments; require new civics exams or courses; and address curriculum in civility, citizenship and character education. This April, the U.S. Department of Education waded into the policy conversation, requesting comment on a proposed rule that would identify two priorities for federal civics education programs: incorporating racially, ethnically, culturally and linguistically diverse perspectives into teaching and learning and promoting information literacy skills.

Experts agree that recent trends and events, including growing polarization, spreading disinformation, intolerance for political opponents’ views, and episodes of political violence like the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, indicate an urgent need for improved civics literacy in the population. Civics education, including a relevant curriculum, strong standards and well-prepared teachers, can contribute to meaningful democratic participation in the broader political culture. Resources like the EAD road map are intended to help educators fulfill this important need for students and help policymakers identify ways to improve outcomes in this important subject.

Benjamin Olneck-Brown is a research analyst in NCSL’s Education Program.

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