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.

Competent and responsible citizens:

  • Are informed and thoughtful about the principles and practices of democracy
  • Participate in their communities through membership in voluntary civil associations
  • Act politically to accomplish public purposes
  • Have moral and civic virtues, such as responsibility of the common good

Best practices

The report also outlined six school-based “best practices” that can lead to increased civic knowledge and engagement of students:

  • Emphasize formal instruction in government, law, history and democracy
  • Incorporate discussion of current events-local, national and international – and especially those that students perceive to be important to their lives, into classroom discussions
  • Provide students with opportunities to apply formal civic learning in the classroom to community service projects connected to the curriculum
  • Offer extracurricular activities that provide opportunities for students to be involved in their schools and communities
  • Encourage students to participate in school governance
  • Encourage student participation in simulations of democratic processes and procedures

There are relatively few big policy successes to date as a result of the report, although a few states have added social studies to their assessment programs and begun pilot programs in civic learning.

In 2004 in a separate initiative, the American Youth Policy Forum (AYPF), in partnership with the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD), conducted a series of round table discussions on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on the topic of bringing back civic engagement in public schools. Present in the discussions were national, state and local policy makers, education leaders and researchers. As a result, these organizations jointly produced an action plan entitled Restoring the Balance between Academics and Civic Engagement in Public Schools, outlining how schools can accomplish the mission of producing students who are both academically proficient and civically engaged.

The report begins by outlining the problem: “…a disturbing imbalance in the mission of public education…the recent preoccupation of the nation with reshaping academics and raising academic performance has all but overpowered a task of equally vital importance – educating our young people to become engaged members of their communities as citizens.” The report found that U.S. schools are failing not only to teach the necessary basic knowledge about democracy and citizenship but also the necessary critical thinking skills and “attitudes and dispositions of productive citizenship.”

The action plan outlined in the report is divided into seven propositions with suggestions for ways to build civic engagement into the public school curriculum, including: sharpening civic knowledge, teaching responsible citizenship and providing opportunities for hands-on civic education through community service, otherwise known as “service-learning.”

Schools and Programs Working to Make Civic Education Real

Several schools and nonprofit programs have taken matters into their own hands and devised engaging opportunities for civic education for students. Here are a few examples.

The Facing History School

In September 2005, the Facing History School opened its doors to 108 freshmen in Manhattan. As part of a collaborative effort of the New York Department of Education and Facing History and Ourselves, a national nonprofit organization, this small school has four essential themes: identity, caring and responsibility, decision-making, and choosing to participate. The school relies on teaching the lessons of history, as developed by the Facing History and Ourselves framework and curriculum, as a means to understanding our current world.

Students study events in history, such as the Holocaust, and consider what factors influenced the choices people made. When the freshmen who began in 2005 become seniors in 2009 they will engage in “Choosing to Participate,” a unit where they will identify a social need and then use the skills and knowledge they have gained to participate in making a positive difference in their community. The ultimate goal is that students will learn from the experiences of the past and engage in the present to make a difference in their world.

In addition to partnering with this school and others, Facing History and Ourselves conducts professional development programs and curriculum framework materials for middle- and high-school teachers across the country.

The emPower Plant

Created by the Heartland Foundation and a region-wide task force in St. Joseph, Missouri, the emPower Plant is a hands-on, experiential learning program designed to teach students ages 12-15 the importance of being involved citizens. Students from schools in the St. Joseph, Missouri area combine a civic engagement classroom curriculum with travel to the emPower Plant test lab to engage in a mock civic activity.

A group of seventh-graders were recently given the task of debating whether or not vending machines should be removed from the city’s schools. They had four hours at the test lab to form an opinion on the topic, conduct research to back up their opinion and put together a presentation for a mock city council. When the mock city council arrived (local community volunteers who took on varied personality types, from the know-it-all to the politician to the eternal optimist), the students had to figure out how to get past the personalities and think on their feet to get their message heard. The emPower Plant classroom materials also engage students in working on real community service projects and making a difference in their communities.

The project grew out of soul-searching by the Heartland Foundation, a local community hospital foundation, which changed its focus from medical projects to community health in the early 1990s. “We realized that our mission was not so much about providing medical care but rather raising education levels and getting people fully engaged in their communities to create a better quality of life, ” says Judy Sabbert-Muck, chief operating officer of the Heartland Foundation. “From the beginning, we knew we needed to involve young people in the process so they can see they can have a role in shaping their community and making a difference.” The emPower Plant program now has the capacity to reach 15,000 students each year.

Sojourn to the Past

Jeff Steinberg, a high school history teacher in San Bruno, California, knew there had to be a better way to engage students in the lessons of history. So in 1999, he created the first of many 10-day “field trips” to the South for students to see the sights and meet with participants of the Civil Rights Movement.

On each journey, entitled “Sojourn to the Past,” 70 to 100 students, teachers and staff from California, New York, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts visit Atlanta, Tuskegee, Montgomery, Birmingham, Selma, Hattiesburg, Jackson, Little Rock and Memphis. They engage in conversation with Martin Luther King III, who talks about the need to carry on his father’s message. They visit Congressman John Lewis, who tells about getting beaten by state troopers as he began the voting rights march in Selma. In Hattiesburg, the school group visits the grave of Vernon Dahmer and meets his family members. They learn how he died in 1966 when his home was firebombed because he was working to get African American citizens registered to vote. Students read background material about the civil rights movement, do community service in their own communities and reflect upon their experience.

Since the first trip in 1999, Steinberg now devotes himself full-time to “Sojourn to the Past” and making it available to as many students as possible. He has organized 48 trips and seen 4,700 students transformed by the journey.

“This is a life-changing experience for high school students. They learn first-hand what it means to put yourself on the line for what you believe in,” says Steinberg. “This journey teaches our youth the importance of not becoming silent witnesses to cruelty, inequality and injustice. Students discover the power in nonviolence and public activism. They learn the power of voting and gain essential knowledge to become the next generation of leaders.”

What Parents Can Do

“Parents need to advocate for the inclusion of social studies as a separate subject in the curriculum, particularly at the elementary level,” notes Peggy Altoff of NCSS. “There are some things that are just too important to be integrated across the curriculum. The future of our country is at stake.” She adds, “If your school has a service-learning program, make sure that students make the connection that it is important to do community service not just to do good work but for the common good of our nation.”

“The most important thing parents can do,” says Marcie Taylor-Thoma, past president of the Council of State Social Studies Specialists, “is have conversations around the dinner table with their children. Talk about the news and about the responsibilities of being a citizen.”