Civics Education is Vital to Effective Democracy

Civics education is the first step towards creating engaged citizens and effective public leaders for the future. Experts and policymakers gathered at the Civics Education in the States session sponsored by the CSG Federalism Task Force Dec. 12 during the 2015 CSG National Conference in Nashville, Tenn., to discuss how states are, and are not, teaching future generations about how the government works and the roles and powers of state and federal governments.  

“As we consider the role of history and civics education there is much at stake,” said Roger Beckett, executive director of the Ashbrook Center at Ashland University, adding that many founding fathers turned their attention to creating schools because they knew education was key to the success of their government. 

The 2014 National Assessment of Educational Progress’ Nation’s Report Card shows scores for civics and social studies are both dismal and stagnant. Only 1 percent of students performed at an advanced level in civics and U.S. history. Beckett said students are performing worse in these two subjects than any other subject measured.

He cited fewer standardized tests in civics and social studies and Common Core’s downplaying of these subjects as reasons for poor student performance. 

There is a lot of confusion around what Carl Stenberg, James E. Holshouser Jr. Distinguished Professor of Public Administration and Government at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, calls the “eternal questions” of the American government’s roles and responsibilities. What does government do on the federal, state and local levels? Who pays what bills? Who is accountable for what areas of governance? The ambiguity of authority among the levels of government makes civics more difficult to teach and understand.

Some states have taken steps intended to improve their students’ understanding of government.  North Carolina and Georgia passed acts requiring high schools to have a senior-level course in America’s founding principles. The Joe Foss Institute in Arizona advocates for requiring high school seniors to pass a citizenship test before graduating, which is now the case in that state. 

Beckett said steps like these raise the profile of the problem, but they won’t completely solve it. “It is a good thing to do, but don’t stop there,” he said. “Use it is as a starting point for a larger conversation about civic education.” 

The numerous controversial issues that are facing state governments—marijuana legalization, gun control, “right-to-try” medicine and Common Core education—will put states in the spotlight in the coming year, said Stenberg. These headline-grabbing issues are great starting points for learning about how government works and have implications for civics education, he added.  The job of government varies by level and it is difficult to define the roles, but these issues, Beckett suggested, could help explain this and get people to care about who is making decisions.

Beckett offered some recommendations for what can be done in states to address issues surround civics education in the states:

  • Admit that we have a problem and talk more about it.

  • Provide teachers with better resources and higher standards focused on these subjects.

  • Do a better job tracking performance at the state level and integrate civics and history performance into school standards measures

  • Create a commission of teachers to provide recommendations for how to improve student performance in civics.

  • Create a better balance in emphasis among the subjects in state curriculums.

  • Engage the philanthropic community in the issue. This is an issue in which private donors and programs traditionally have not shown interest.