A Push for Civics Education in Schools

The upcoming July 4th holiday marks an excellent opportunity to sit back and reflect on the state of civics instruction in public schools. It's easy to see young people standing on sidewalks waving flags during holiday parades or reciting the Pledge of Allegiance at the start of the school day and believe students are universally receiving a solid civics education in school. Despite these images there is overwhelming evidence that the quantity and quality of civics education a student receives in school depends to a large extent on where he or she lives.

According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) Civics 2010 Report Card, about 30 percent of high school seniors were not taught about elections and voting. Assuming this to be the case, it is worth noting that at an age when young people are on the verge of becoming full participants in our democracy, two-thirds receive no formal instruction on the electoral process.

In 2010, NAEP tested more than 25,000 students in 4th, 8th, and 12th grades at more than 1,470 schools and compared their civics knowledge with earlier assessments in 1998 and 2006. The results showed a steady increase in 4th graders’ civic knowledge, but almost no change for 8th graders during that period. The scores for 12th graders actually declined in 2010.

The results of that assessment were so alarming that former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor began a push to revive civics education. Her efforts so far have included helping to launch a Website at www.icivics.org. O’Connor stated in a news release, “The scores reveal a very disturbing lack of basic knowledge of our system of government and how and why citizens must be engaged.” She added, “The report is a clarion call for action to restore the civic mission of our nation’s schools. We can and must do better in providing civic education to all of our nation’s school students.”

In an article, The Return of Civic Education, Donovan Walling, a senior consultant for the Center for Civic Education contends “civics education began wandering the curricular wilderness in the 1960s.” He points to Vietnam and later Watergate as fostering feelings of disenchantment, rebellion, experimentation, a loss of faith in traditional institutions and traditional leaders and ultimately the “erosion of curricular requirements in civic education.

Some blame No Child Left Behind in part for the decline in civics education in schools. High stakes testing means if content isn’t included on end-of-year assessments, it frequently isn’t taught. This has resulted in a heavy emphasis on mathematics and English/Language Arts skills with little focus on lessons that will lead to increased civic literacy.

In 2003, the Maine legislature established the Commission to Study the Scope and Quality of Citizenship Education. The Commission issued a final report in February 2004 which called for the implementation of nine strategies for strengthening citizenship education across Maine. Later that year, then-Gov. John Baldacci signed an order enacting the task force recommendations. Today Maine has the nation’s second-highest rate for volunteering among 16- to 18-year olds, according to the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning & Engagement.

The National Center for Learning and Citizenship, an initiative of Education Commission of the States, points out today civics education in most states focus entirely around such items as the history and workings of government, the Constitution, and the rights and responsibilities of citizens. The Center says, “Policymakers should re-examine and revise academic standards to ensure they reflect a priority on civic knowledge, skills and dispositions in a clear and concise fashion.” This might include development of skills such as problem solving, debating and writing on current civic issues and the development of attitudes necessary for productive citizenship, including a belief in liberty, equality, personal responsibility, honesty and a sense that one’s actions can make a difference in society. (For more information, see http://casel.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/04/5418.pdf.)

Another useful resource for policymakers is The Center for Civic Education. Its Campaign to Promote Civic Education effort is a national campaign to restore the civic mission of our nation’s schools by encouraging states and school districts to devote sustained and systematic attention to civic education from kindergarten through twelfth grade. The organization’s Website includes a database of state campaigns. (For more information, see http://www.civiced.org/index.php?page=campaign_to_promote).