Boosting Civics Education in Indiana for Democracy’s Sake
An Indiana law establishing a middle school civic education requirement is the latest step in a multisector partnership that aims to help students get a better idea of what democracy is all about.
Public trust in government is declining. The reasons are many, but it doesn’t help that only a shrinking minority of Americans know how American government works. Less than half of respondents to the 2022 Annenberg Constitution Day survey could identify the three branches of government, the first drop in six years.
More than two-thirds of U.S. residents who answered the American Bar Association’s 2023 civic literacy survey said that the general public is either “not very informed” or “not informed at all” about how government works. Filling this gap could begin in our schools, but that’s been neglected for decades.
Earlier this month, the National Center for Education Statistics released the civics and history scores for eighth graders from its 2022 Report Card. Average civics scores declined for the first time since 1998. Fewer than 1 in 4 students were “proficient,” with a level of understanding sufficient to apply the subject, and 31 percent tested below the “basic” level.
Indiana has emerged as an example of a focused and broadly inclusive approach to this problem. The 2019 edition of the Indiana Civic Health Index noted that the state was consistently in the bottom 10 in the country in regard to voter registration and turnout, and cited weaknesses in civic education programs in schools as an important part of the problem.
In response, the Indiana Bar Foundation announced that it was forming a civic education task force, with Lt. Gov. Suzanne Crouch as chair.
“We knew we had to do something to improve civic education and make it a priority, because that’s a fundamental component in a successfully functioning democratic republic,” Crouch says. “That’s how you make a community better and that’s how you make a country stronger.”
Building on work that the Bar Foundation had been doing for years, the task force attracted wide support, recently reflected in a new law that requires middle school students to complete a semester of civic education.
At the national level, low levels of civics proficiency have persisted for decades.
If anyone could make the case that the way to get government working the way you’d like is to understand it and use its processes, it’s Anthony Cook. He spent four decades in Indiana’s public education system, as a government and history teacher, coach, principal and superintendent of schools.
He has long had concerns about students’ lack of knowledge about American government and felt there should be more formal coursework to fill these gaps. After retiring in 2014, he ran for a seat in the Indiana House to work toward this and other education reforms.
He won and stayed in office for eight years, steadily learning how the Legislature worked and building a coalition of support for his education priorities. In 2020, he decided to make his move. “I saw the turmoil that was happening in our country — the lack of civility and the lack of understanding of how our Constitution and our processes work,” he says.
In January 2021, he introduced HB 1384, which required one semester of civic education in grade 6, 7 or 8 and established an Indiana Civic Education Commission. The bill passed both houses of the Legislature with just one “no” vote. Gov. Eric Holcomb signed it into law in July 2021.
The new rule will go into effect in fall 2023. Spurred on by a sense of urgency, Cook had managed to take years off the 2026 time frame that had been discussed for a curriculum requirement. “I’m a little bit of a go-getter,” he says. “That’s the old football coach in me.”
Katie Jenner, appointed as Indiana’s first secretary of education in 2020, embraces the middle school requirement and expects to add the civics course in sixth grade. Students will take a course focused on the foundations and functions of government and the role of a citizen, she says. “Those standards will spiral upward throughout their trajectory through graduation.”
At present, Indiana students are required to take a U.S. government course in high school and part of the naturalization exam. Starting with the class of 2023, work-, service- or project-based learning will be a prerequisite for high school graduation.
“We’re leaning in to how we might provide an experiential civics-based learning capstone of some sort,” Jenner says.
Mock Trials and Hearings
The nonprofit state Bar Foundation was created in 1950. It wasn’t until 1999 that enough staff were added for it to take on program work, says its president and CEO, Charles Dunlap. Today its mission has two parts: administering civic education programs and advancing civic education policy and providing access to civic legal aid to underserved populations.
The Bar Foundation’s early work in supporting civic education focused on We the People, a curriculum covering the history and principles of America’s constitutional democracy. It was developed in 1987 by the Center for Civic Education as a principal education resource during the bicentennial of the Constitution.
We the People culminates in a simulated hearing in which students, taking the role of members of Congress, testify before judges. Some states offer competitive hearings, but the hearing can also be strictly a learning exercise.
The Indiana Bar Foundation engaged with We the People from its earliest days, Dunlap says, as did Indiana University. In 2012 the foundation began administering the program, which covers the cost of materials and training for teachers who want to offer the curriculum and organizes competitive hearings for middle and high school students.
The foundation expanded its civic work to give high school students opportunities to act as attorneys and witnesses in mock trials before a panel of attorneys, judges and community members. (The program also includes competitions at regional and state levels.)
Along with other work, it has partnered with the National Conference on Citizenship for the last decade to produce a civic health index for the state — the document that accelerated work in Indiana with its 2019 findings.
In April 2023, the Bar Foundation organized a one-day summit that brought representatives from the state’s legislative, legal, educational and business communities together with leaders from national civic education nonprofits to reflect on progress to date and what should come next. Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, was a featured speaker.
“It’s gratifying to see so many people from diverse backgrounds care about this,” Dunlap says. “We’ve been doing this for a while, and I haven’t seen the focus on civics this high and this strong."
Related: Why the Indiana Business Community Wants Better Civic Education
Passing the Torch
Shawn Healy is senior director, state policy and advocacy at iCivics, a nonpartisan civic education nonprofit founded by Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. He chaired a civic education task force in Indiana in 2014, and has been involved in recent efforts through CivXNow, a coalition advocating for state and federal legislation to support progress toward higher standards for civic learning.
Healy would like to see more states follow Indiana’s example. “It’s critical that we not wait until high school to teach civics,” he says, noting that similar bills are in process in other states, across the political spectrum. “There are green shoots, but we need to do more.”
“If we do civic education well, it will produce changes across those indicators,” says Healy. “I don’t expect Indiana’s voting numbers to increase in the next few years — that will be a generational difference.”
On a national level, recent years have seen some controversy — and even legislation — regarding what should and shouldn’t be discussed in government and civics classrooms. In Healy’s view, this tension isn’t necessarily unhealthy.
“We have to develop an attachment to this longstanding experiment in democracy,” he says. “That’s how we pass the torch forward; we need to measure the extent to which we are living up to the high ideals expressed in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Federalist Papers.”
One measure Healy hopes to see is state-level data regarding student performance in civics, which is available for NAEP mathematics, reading and science test results. That would make it possible to get a better idea which of the varying state-level approaches to civic education are having the greatest measurable impact.
Democracy: You Can Lose It
One of the outcomes of the April summit was the creation of a Civics Coalition in Indiana. “There is great momentum created by the Civics Summit that will bring a cross-section of civics advocates together to continue discussing Indiana’s role in the national and local civics landscape,” Dunlap said in an announcement of this development.
Cook is now working as a consultant for the Illinois High School Association and is counting on his friends in the Legislature to keep the policy framework moving forward. He’s hoping things will continue at the accelerated pace he set.
“We have any number of initiatives that we can continue to explore and take action on that will result in a better educated citizenry, particularly a better educated young citizenry,” she says.
This emphasis has the potential to impact more than civics. “One of the questions that we will face in the future is if you're leaning more into civics education and making sure students have experiential learning and credentials of value, how does that in itself start to redesign what schools look like and how they can be better?”
As he pushed for his bill’s passage, Cook says his “mantra,” repeated in speeches in the House and Senate, was that the practice of democracy must be taught to each new generation. It can’t be passed down through the genes.
“This is still the greatest [form of] government in the world, but as Franklin said, you can lose it,” says Cook. “That’s why I think it's extremely important to get better at understanding how it works.”