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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.

Comments from readers

"Thanks for this article. As President of our school board I feel it is important for kids to understand their role on a democratic society. On the way to school my kids (ages 6 and 8) were complaining that they were not allowed to vote for the President on Nov. 4. I then spoke to our Superintendent and our High School Social Studies teacher and we will be holding a K-12 schoolwide election on Tuesday Nov. 4th. I will make sure that this article is sent to all our teachers. Thanks, Teresa"
"Thank you for this article, The parents in my grandson's school district are not even aware of what NCLB has done to the school's curriculum. Science and hisitory, music and art are hardly taught. My grandson's kindergarden class doesn't even have a science table. The closest thing to civics I have observed being taught is a lesson on community helpers. I feel so sad for our childen being so dumbed down. What can we do about NCLB? I don't see any presidential candidate, who cares what NCLB has done to our educational system. Their kids are not affected. They go to the best schools to be had. This may be a far-fetched question; but do you think there is some sort of conspiracy to dumb Americans down, so we hardly know any history and can not even , possibly be able to make intelligent choices at the polls?"
"I completely agree with our children not being educated enough in these areas at school. I was wondering if you had any recommendations of books that I can get from the library that would help me educate my kids myself. My children are 7 and 8 years old, so books that they can understand. Their school doesn't even have time for their teachers to teach any of these subjects because of their huge focus on reading. Thank you for your help."
"One of the steps that I have personally taken to deal with this subject is to include studies in Governemnt and Civic Responsibility in the curriculum and focus of a new charter school in Kansas City, Kansas. This is the first charter school here and has a theme of Government. The idea is to begin students learning about civic responsibility at the elementary school level so that it is not new to them as middle- and high school students. If anyone knows of specific curriculum addressing this topic for elementary schools, please let me know."
"I read this issue with great interest as I, too, believe we must foster our children's interest in civic responsibility. The current election process as been an important topic around the dinner table for our family. And, you might understand how upsetting it was to hear that when I was recently registering to vote and mentioned I was planning on taking my 13 year old with me to the voting booth next month, I was told by my local election officials that I could not do that. Upon my insistance a supervisor was called to futher explain. I was then informed that if she was under 15 she could come into the voting booth but if over 15 she would not be allowed to accompany me. Any idea why this would be???"
"Excellent research and article!!!!"
"I am very happy to know that there is a rise in the focus that we are failing our young people by not educating them in the civic of their own country! How would you suggest I get involved as a parent/citizen in my community and state?"
"I think it deserves mention that 'We the People', the current text used in a lot of schools, is accused of various innacuracies, revisionist history on occasion, and is teaching a particular view of history and government, not just the facts. Conservatives are especially unhappy with this text, as well as traditionalists, who desire for instance for the 2nd ammendment to be taught as more that an out-of-date right for citizens to form a militia. Gun owners and hunters in general would not be pleased with the attitudes this text teaches and the omitting it does. We need textbooks that teach facts and ideas, not train kids to, for instance, believe that the US needs to submit to international law and the control of the UN. Read it and see."
"I do not see mention of one of the most successful civic engagement and citizenship programs in the country. One of the Center for Civic Education's programs is Project Citizen. You can see how the program works and the work that is going on in Vermont by visiting "