The state of civic education: Teaching the citizens of tomorrow
Students' civic knowledge is lagging, but some groups are taking aim at the problem.
By GreatSchools Staff
As kids spend less time reading and more time watching TV, and states demand standardized testing in subjects other than history, it should come as no surprise that today's youth are demonstrating low levels of proficiency in American history and limited knowledge of our political system.
Students Demonstrate Limited Civic Knowledge
In recent years, study after study has shown that most students in the United States have poor knowledge of and limited engagement with civic education.
In a survey conducted by the National Constitution Center, an independent nonprofit group, more teens could name the Three Stooges than the three branches of government while the 2006 National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) Civics Report Card to the Nation showed that only 24% of fourth-grade students scored at the proficient level in civics and eighth-graders' knowledge of civics had not changed since the 1998 assessment.
Twelfth-graders, tomorrow's voters, performed at about the same level in 2006 as they did in 1998, with 27% scoring at the proficient level. These results come at the same time as voter participation is declining. Even in the last presidential election, when there was a surge in new voter registration, less than half of the eligible 18- to 24-year-olds voted.
Declining Role of Social Studies
Despite these gloomy statistics, there are few signs that renewed emphasis will be placed on civic education on a national scale anytime soon. With the requirements imposed by the federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) that all students be tested annually in reading and math in grades 3 through 8, the emphasis across the country is focused primarily on improving basic skills. In 2003 in Florida, for example, the state Department of Education recommended that school districts cut back on social studies classes - including history, geography and civics-to focus more on subjects covered by the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT).
"NCLB has done more harm to social studies education than anything else," says Rick Theisen, former president of the National Council for Social Studies (NCSS). "If it's not tested, it's not taught, and if it's not tested, it's not funded."
Until the late 1960s, formal civic education often comprised up to three courses, usually civics, democracy and government, in addition to U.S. history. A recent study, "The Civic Mission of Schools," revealed a continuing trend throughout the 1970s, '80s and '90s to condense those civic education courses into a single course.
Restoring Civic Engagement
Most Americans recognize the importance of educating students about civic engagement. According to the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE), nine out of 10 Americans say it is important for high school students to study civics and government.
A few civic education initiatives are beginning to gather support. In 2004 a federal law was passed declaring September 17 to be "Constitution Day," and requiring all educational institutions receiving federal funds, as well as federal agencies, to hold programming on the Constitution every September 17.
In 2003, a report sponsored by the Carnegie Corporation of New York and CIRCLE reviewed and interpreted research on school-based civic education in the United States. Fifty-six leading experts contributed to the report, which included goals for civic education in schools and recommendations for school administrators and policymakers. More than 30,000 copies of the report were distributed, a national organization - the Civic Mission of Schools - was established, as well as civic education coalitions in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Their charge is to promote civic education according to the following goals outlined in the report:
To develop competent citizens who have the knowledge, skills, and attitudes necessary to participate responsibly and effectively in the political and civic life of a democracy.