Civic Education Is Having a Moment. This Is What That Means.
For decades, America dropped the ball on teaching students about democratic governance processes. Now it’s being seen as essential to repairing a battered democracy.
The Constitution is often invoked to give weight to political rhetoric. It was name-checked 16 times in a Jan. 6, 2021, speech by the former president as he urged citizens to march to the Capitol and prevent Congress from exercising its constitutional duty to certify the 2020 election results.
Emotion around the Constitution may be strong, but the 2022 Constitution Day Survey from the Annenberg Public Policy Center (APPC) found that understanding of it is not. Fewer than half of Americans could name all three branches of government, down from 56 percent in 2021. (One in four could not name any.) There were sharp declines in the ability of respondents to name freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment.
“We need to increase the civic literacy of the population as a whole — if we don’t do that, we’re going to have real problems,” says Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the APPC. “We are unlikely to cherish, protect and exercise rights if we don’t know that we have them.”
An October 2022 poll by the nonprofit iCivics found overwhelming bipartisan support for more civics education, with almost 7 in 10 saying that it is more important today than five years ago. This is reflected in recent policy and funding developments, says Shawn Healy, senior director for policy and advocacy at iCivics.
The Civic Secures Democracy Act proposed $1 billion annually for civics education. The bill didn’t make it through Congress in 2022, but language from it was incorporated in the omnibus spending bill and funding for civic education more than tripled. Bipartisan legislation was introduced in February that would add the study of civics and government to the scope of the National Endowment for the Humanities, opening up a significant new source of support.
CivXNow, a cross-party coalition with more than 280 members, has developed a “state policy menu” that outlines goals for improving the quality of K-12 civic education. In the past two years, 16 states passed 17 laws that align with its recommendations, Healy says. According to iCivics Executive Director Louise Dubé, legislatures in 18 states are currently considering 50 bills designed to advance civic education.
The needs, opportunities and strategies for advancing civics education will be highlighted in the first National Civic Learning Week, March 6-10. iCivics is cosponsoring the event in partnership with the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS), the National Archives Foundation, the Farvue Foundation, Microsoft and the SN Charitable Foundation.
Soft Skills for a Hard World
Civic learning and social studies have been marginalized over the past two decades, beginning with the implementation of the 2002 No Child Left Behind Act, says NCSS Executive Director Lawrence Paska. Today, 13 states have no civics course requirement and only seven require a full year of government or civics instruction. Federal investment has been about 5 cents per student per year, compared to $50 for STEM.
“What that means is that we potentially have an entire generation of students who may not be adequately prepared for a college career and civic life,” Paska says. More investments for materials, professional development and civic-based learning opportunities for students are needed to fill these gaps.
“Civics is where you learn how to build difficult, fragile consensus, where you learn to communicate through and comprehend bedeviling, really hard issues,” says Andrew Wilkes, chief policy and advocacy officer for Generation Citizen, a civics education advocacy organization.
The soft skills that students develop in civics classes are necessary for workplace success, says Janice Brunner, group general counsel and head of civic engagement at Travelers. “Learning about our democracy and values as a nation teaches students to participate in decisions – electoral or otherwise – and inspires them to step up in their communities to help solve challenges in ways that are constructive and neighborly.”
Megan Brandon led civic education efforts in her Texas school district before joining Generation Citizen as program director. The state passed a law limiting discussion of topics traditionally encompassed in civics lessons, one of the first in a trend that has frustrated and demoralized teachers. The energy and momentum embodied in the upcoming Civic Learning Week offer hope, Brandon says.
The Learning Week Program
The Civic Learning Week program involves a mix of live and virtual events that address a wide range of national and local issues around civic learning. The opening forum will take place at the National Archives. The final event on March 10 will be a question and answer session involving Supreme Court Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor, students and teachers. (Former Associate Justice Sandra Day O’Connor founded iCivics in 2009 after resigning from the court.)
Twenty states have officially endorsed the week and dozens of partner organizations have organized sessions that range from a podcast on experiential learning in rural Arkansas to a three-day in-person conference organized by the Washington State Council for the Social Studies with the theme “No Easy Answers.”
A session from the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation and the Center for Civic Education will revolve around individuals and groups traditionally underrepresented in discussions of the founding era. Generation Citizen is hosting a session focused on careers in civic action, with a panel that includes government officials, community organizers and activists.
“Anyone in state or local government could participate in the opening forum either in person or virtually to learn about current research and trends in civic education, to get a sense of both its potential and where it has been marginalized over the years,” says Paska.
Boards of education and state administrators in nine states are either revising or taking a close look at their social studies standards, notes Wilkes. Arguments around what should be taught, and the way lessons about American democracy should be framed, are being played out even at grass-roots levels such as PTA meetings, he says, and the research and practice embodied in the Civic Learning Week have special importance at such a time.
Could he win? A campaign ad created by the Annenberg Public Policy Center for civics curriculum takes remarks from the Gettysburg address out of context. Lincoln actually said “we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain” and that the battlefield had been consecrated by those who struggled on it.
A Path Forward
The neglect of civic education has amplified concerns about the health of American democracy. Only 1 in 5 Americans say they can trust federal government to do what is right always or most of the time. One in 5 believe violence may be needed to save the country, and 1 in 5 told Pew researchers that QAnon conspiracy theories are good for the country.
“There's a profound sense across the political spectrum something is wrong,” says Healy. “Maybe focusing on new and innovative ways to approach civic education is a path out of this dire situation we see ourselves in.”
APPC’s Jamieson emphasizes the importance of curriculum that addresses the functions of local government. Most people won’t have a chance to have a direct impact on the federal government as individuals, she says, but they can have a direct impact on city and county government. She’d also like to see journalists and public officials pay attention to the true state of general knowledge when they talk about government or politics and build basic information into their communications.
“I'd love to see what the world would look like if we were focusing on civics and social studies every day, K-12,” says Paska. “Could that help our next generation be prepared for the challenges and the opportunities of being active in civic life? I think so.”