Civic Education is Needed, but not Always Available

ANCHORAGE, ALASKA--Political polarization and economic inequality dramatically affect civic education in the United States, speakers at the session, “Understanding and Promoting High Quality Civic Education,” said.

Diana Hess, senior vice president of the Spencer Foundation at the University of Wisconsin Madison, said the movement to the political extremes leaves very little in the middle. In fact, she said, only 35 of the 435 seats n the U.S. House of Representatives are competitive.

“Political polarization has caused young people to believe they can’t see their own voice in politics or the choices available to them are not the choices they want to have,” she said.

In addition, exposure to quality civic education often is based on a family’s income or ethnicity, according to Hess. That translates into participation in the political system.

“The more income you have, the more likely you are to have your voice heard by politicians,” said Hess. “Money talks and one of the things that has caused is a really dramatic difference in who participates politically.

“If people are politically participating based on income and education, that means the interests of some people are going to be heard more than the interests of other people.”

Civic participation begins at an early age, and speakers said young people must get continuous education to understand government and politics. Walter Parker, a professor of education and political science at the University of Washington, said states must improve the quality and equality of its high school government courses.

“In current parlance, this means excellence and equity,” he said. “Excellence referring to quality of curriculum and equity to who has access to quality.”

He said programs should apply three design principles for quality—depth of information, project-based learning and looping, or revisiting the information several times.

The Classroom Law Project of Oregon is one example of a program that follows those principles. Marilyn Cover, founder and executive director, said the program offers professional development for teachers on best practices for getting students involved. She founded the nonprofit organization because she believes civic education is necessary for the country.

“We need to support civic education in our public in our schools and if we don’t, our democracy will suffer,” she said.

Ted McConnell, executive director for the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools, cited statistics about the lack of state requirements for civic education. He implored policymakers in the session to take action.

“We need your help,” said Ted McConnell, executive director for the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools. “There is a wealth of research materials, best practice models and programs available to help each state. Please join with us for the health and future of our republic.”