For another view of this topic, click here to read Finding Community and Places for Civil Discourse in a Divided America.
For decades, U.S. schools have failed to provide students with an adequate civics education, which is integral to building and maintaining an engaged and informed voting population.
How bad is it? According to the 2018 Annenberg Constitution Day Civics Survey, only 32 percent of Americans can name all three branches of the U.S. government. Even worse, 33 percent could not correctly name one branch.
Unfortunately, this lack of basic civics knowledge is not restricted to U.S. adults. In 2014, only 23 percent of American students earned a proficient score on the civics portion of the “Nation’s Report Card” exam. Needless to say, this does not bode well for the future.
Given these startling statistics, one would assume that American educators would be working feverishly to find new ways to improve civics courses. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. Only nine states and the District of Columbia require a full year of civics education as a requirement for high school graduation. Thirty-one states require students enroll in only one half-year course.
Although several solutions have been proposed by educators and researchers to solve the civics crisis, none have been widely adopted. One of the most significant civics-related proposals is to require all high school students to pass the U.S. citizenship test, the same test that all immigrants must earn a passing score on before becoming a citizen. Although the movement started with much fanfare, it has since fizzled out; only 17 states have such a requirement.
Schools are failing miserably to educate millions of Americans in basic civics. However, all is not lost. With a few reasonable changes, a civics education Renaissance is more than attainable.
As a former public high school teacher, one who taught courses in both American government and U.S. history, I have firsthand experience in the civics classroom crisis. Like many who have taught these courses before, I believe it is virtually impossible to provide children with the civics education they need in an eight-week civics “crash course.” It’s simply not enough time to dive into this important and complex subject. Civics, at the very least, should be a full-year course, and students should be offered opportunities to take additional, more advanced civics courses as well.
Second, civics standards need a total overhaul. It’s not enough to teach kids how bills become laws, they need to know more about their rights as Americans and understand the history behind the constitutional protections they have been provided. The United States is an exceptional place, but most students are being taught the opposite is true. Yes, some truly terrible things have happened in America — just as they have in all countries — but the United States’ commitment to personal freedom has made America the most powerful, wealthy, successful nation the world has ever seen. Students need to understand these ideas. Civics isn’t about laws, it’s about rights and personal freedom.
Third, state standards are too narrowly focused on knowledge attainment. States typically don’t offer students any form of experiential learning as part of their civics standards. No wonder youth participation in politics is abysmally low! If schools want to improve civics scores, they should teach children why civics is important, and the best way to do that is by getting them directly involved with the lawmaking process through internships, volunteer opportunities, and field trips to local and state government buildings, including state capitols.
Another way to increase student engagement is to emphasize student government in schools. If students are able to get actively involved in the governance of their own schools, it’s likely they’ll have a greater interest in the governance of their communities in the future.
Fourth, and perhaps most important, students and parents should be given access to universal education savings accounts, which allow kids to go to any school their parents like. This would permit parents who care about civics to have the option of enrolling their children in schools that teach the values they are most concerned with.
Although these solutions will not solve the civics crisis overnight, they would be a step in the right direction. But in order for any of this to occur, teachers and parents need the freedom and flexibility to accomplish these goals — flexibility they have been denied by bureaucrats and some disinterested politicians who have proven repeatedly they don’t care about improving civics. Achieving progress requires a completely different approach.