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Why Teaching Civic Engagement is Essential

Teaching the fundamentals of American government builds the foundation for more engaged citizens in the future.
Lakeside High Ga. compete
Five students from Lakeside High School in Georgia compete in the annual We the People state competition in 2010, testing their comprehension and understanding of the state’s laws, the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights and how they apply to their daily lives. Winners of the state competition then attend the Washington D.C. national finals, which this group attended.

In the weeks leading up to a presidential election, it’s hard to dismiss the importance of civic education, with campaign speeches, debates and advertisements blaring everywhere. Yet the National Assessment of Education Progress reports that only one-fourth of high school graduates are proficient in topics such as the American political system, principles of democracy, world affairs and the roles of citizens.

What’s even more astounding is that just 38 percent of Americans surveyed can name all three branches of government, and a third can’t name a single one, according to the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. The same study noted that twice as many respondents could name a judge on the hit television show “American Idol.”

“There is a general skepticism that kids are learning less,” says Mike Petrilli, executive vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an education-policy think tank within a nonprofit organization. “We know that if you test kids on their civic knowledge they do pretty poorly, but it’s probably been that way for a long time.”

Since 2001, when Congress passed the No Child Left Behind Act, teachers have focused on teaching standards in reading, writing, math and science. More recently, Petrilli says, another big focus has been on college and career readiness. “That’s been the mantra,” Petrilli says. “But there is some self-correcting going on, and you’ve started to hear people say it’s important to focus on college, career and citizenship.”

With support from the U.S. Department of Education and The Pew Charitable Trusts, the nonprofit Center for Civic Education recently developed a set of standards for what students should know and be able to do in the field of civics and government at the end of grades 4, 8 and 12. Additionally, the U.S. Department of Education released a report in January arguing that civic education should be reinvigorated and reimagined. “Unfortunately, civic learning and democratic engagement are add-ons rather than essential parts of the core academic mission,” the report says, adding that “many elementary and secondary schools are pushing civics and service-learning to the sidelines, mistakenly treating education for citizenship as a distraction from preparing students for college-level mathematics, English, and other core subjects.” The report also said that many high education institutions now offer civic learning as an elective instead of an integral component of preparing students to compete in a knowledge-based, global economy.

Civic Education is Critical

Many experts say that having citizens who understand what it truly means to be informed and involved in democracy is something that they’ve been championing for years.

“Civic education is critical,” says Marcie Taylor-Thoma, vice chairperson of the Maryland Commission for Civic Literacy, which was created in 1997 to promote civic education by developing programs to educate students and by preparing resources to assist civics educators. “We believe people really need to be involved in their communities rather than be apathetic,” says Taylor-Thoma. “There’s a tie in to participation that comes from learning about civics at a young age and through higher education. Successful people are those who understand how government works and what it means to be a citizen.”

Taylor-Thoma says that education toward that end begins in prekindergarten. In preK classrooms in Maryland, teachers are covering civic-minded topics such as why there are rules at home and at school, what patriotic symbols mean, and how people interact in groups. “Young people seem to feel more victimized by politics and government,” Taylor-Thoma says. “They tend to stay away from majoring in political science and getting involved in campaigns and volunteering with government because they think it is a waste to get involved.”

According to the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE), evidence from national surveys shows the following: “[Young people who have] civic education are more likely than other students to be able to interpret political information correctly, to discuss political issues with peers and adults, to monitor the news and to feel confident about their ability to speak in public. Additionally, students who have experienced interactive civic education show a better ability to clearly express their opinions, have better collaborative group skills and have a better ability to work in culturally diverse teams.”

Inequities of Education

Just like the various views on what constitutes freedom of speech, every state has taken a different approach to dealing—or not dealing—with civic education. “The real problem lies in the inequities at wealthy schools versus lower income, Title 1 schools,” says Peter Levine, Director of Research at CIRCLE, who has written a variety of books including: Reforming The Humanities and Engaging Young People in Civic Life.

Lund's dadTypically the federal government has had a limited role, Levine says, but “they inserted themselves strongly with the No Child Left Behind Act.” The law, which officially took effect in 2003, means that teaching civics is no longer a high stakes test and more money has been given to better performing, typically wealthier schools, which leaves an ever-widening gap between the “haves” and “have nots.” But it’s not all about the financial inequities, Levine admits. “Colleges aren’t saying they need civics for admissions, so if a school district is doing fine [on core competency exams], they include civics education. When things get rough and there’s a school dropout rate of roughly 30 percent or more, they just cut civics.”

At that point, Levine says that many schools also cut arts, music and other programs because they are so focused on reading and writing tests. These programs, which help students learn in nontraditional avenues, also help them become more collaborative, team-oriented and civic-minded—all skills that are essential for life after school. “It’s horrible on multiple levels,” Levine says. “They are no longer learning more of the challenging skills to get them into college and for the workplace. It’s very shortsighted, and the way we deal with it is disastrous.”

Testing and Accountability

If schools don’t test students’ civic knowledge and skills, they become afterthoughts in education, especially in schools where many pupils are at risk of failing the subjects that are tested. Yet in the schools where students are tested in civics, teachers tend to focus on the basic facts of government instead of teaching students principles they can apply as engaged citizens.

The civics section of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) is the only test done on a national level and is only administered every three years. While it gives some useful information, Levine says that it is limited because there’s no way to tell how pupils are doing in different states—only how kids are doing on a national level, which averages out the extreme differences.

It’s also hard to tell how American children are doing compared to their counterparts in other countries, since there aren’t any recent studies. The last IEA Civic Education Study (which is conducted by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement) that the United States participated in was administered in 1999-2000 and tested the civic knowledge of students in 28 countries. American students did “pretty well on some measures of international issues,” Levine says, but the study revealed that they had the largest gaps of any country between the most and least advantaged kids. “It really showed that our educational system is much more unequal than anyone else’s,” Levine continues. “Civic education is just an example of that.”

Many experts say that testing in such a one-dimensional manner means “developing irrelevant facts that keep kids disconnected with the emotional obligation to be civically engaged,” says Steve Peha, founder of Teaching That Makes Sense, a learning project that provides free teaching tools to K12 teachers.

Peha says that it’s important to teach students the context of those facts—why our founders decided to risk their lives for certain principles of justice, why we have a constitution and political parties, and what the ideals are that our country was founded on. “You have to immerse kids,” Peha says. “Start with the environment, the current events they are in today.”

When Peha was in school, one of his teachers focused on the hostages in Iran and then asked the students, “What are we going to do about this?”

The current event approach had a profound effect on Peha and his classmates. “No kid gets that now because of our current emphasis and focus in education,” Peha says. “The notion that we need a well-educated citizenry has been squeezed out of the formal curriculum.” The economic situation has added to the problem. “When Congress killed all the earmarked spending this spring, it also killed all the funding for civic education,” Peha says.

Growing Civic Ed in Florida

Various state legislatures have taken civic education into their own hands. On its third attempt to enact civics education as a state mandate, Florida passed the Justice Sandra Day O’Connor Civics Education Act in 2010.

OregonAs of last year, teachers were required to teach civics-related content in the language arts curriculum of all grades. The new law requires students starting middle school to take a semesterlong civics class. By the 2014-2015 school year, they must pass a statewide standardized test to make it into high school. The hefty $1.5 million cost of administering the test is being picked up by the Florida Department of Education, and scores from the test will factor into the school’s grade under the state’s report card accountability system.

Tennessee’s Forward-thinking

Levine says one of the most recent innovative initiatives thus far happened when Tennessee’s legislature passed a bill last April. The new bill requires school districts to assess their students’ knowledge of civics by giving them assignments that are “student-influenced” and “involve an inquiry process structured around complex, authentic questions and carefully designed products and tasks.” In lieu of written tests, students will have to implement a project-based assessment in civics at least once in grades 4 to 8 and at least one additional time during grades 9 to 12. These projects will be used to find out whether Tennessee’s students, according to the bill, can “demonstrate understanding and relevance of public policy, the structure of federal, state and local governments and both the Tennessee and United States constitutions.”

“Even though the language of the law is quite vague,” Levine says, “it’s pretty forward thinking. The bill doesn’t, and shouldn’t, specify what the assignments will be like, but I hope that many Tennessee students will choose issues of concern to them in their own communities.”

Engaging Students

Many experts say it’s not that students are less engaged now; rather, they are just less exposed to civic education from fewer parent discussions of current events around the dinner table and from fewer class discussions, given that their teachers are limited by curriculum requirements. “Kids are extremely engaged in things they have access to,” Peha says. “That’s always been the case. What kids have access to today is a lot of interesting social technology that keeps them focused on themselves and their friends.”

Cynthia Brown, vice president for education policy at the Center for American Progress in Washington, D.C., says the new focus should not be on the traditional format of students learning individually in neatly lined rows, but in using cooperative learning styles. “That type of learning empowers students to explore topics from a variety of angles by problem solving,” she says. “Teachers then act more as coaches. By having students work together, it automatically promotes better teamwork and citizenship.” In a time when constant communication is expected, keeping students and their multitasking teachers engaged is harder than ever. A big part of that is using technology more effectively to bring teachers and students closer together. Mary Lund, a teacher at Garfield Elementary School in Port Huron, Mich., has tried more traditional avenues in the past, such as playing patriotic music while students are writing, or having advanced students create PowerPoint presentations based on research of historical events, or taking classes to the library to make sure they have a library card and access to books. This fall she’s incorporating teaching about the Electoral College with math lessons.

With parents losing their jobs and struggling to pay for groceries in Michigan’s weak economy, Lund says that engaging kids with civics lessons is twice as challenging. Parents are more concerned about basic necessities and less about their children learning about civics.

Lund tried to teach civic engagement by having her students select a classroom representative who was supposed to politic for a new picnic table. But when that student representative returned to the classroom without a picnic table, she responded, “Oh, I forgot to ask.”

PearsonTo help engage her students more this fall, Lund will use iPads for the first time, with Pearson’s Online Learning Exchange’s (OLE) Election Series. The program gives middle and high school teachers articles, blog posts, candidate profiles, videos, calendars and other materials on current events leading up to the presidential election, along with suggested social studies lesson plans to help teachers dig deeper into relevant election-based topics. Students can watch online videos about current events and read and submit their own blog posts and campaign ideas.

Many other teachers and organizations are trying to incorporate more interactive, kid-friendly forms of teaching to help promote civics. For example, after leaving the Supreme Court, Justice O’Connor created the online iCivics program, which offers virtual civics lessons, interactive games, lectures and homework assignments to help address the lack of government knowledge among Americans. Programs such as ePals, a social network for K12, help students connect with their counterparts in more than 200 countries internationally. Channel One News, a television station geared for teens that has been around since 1990, offers video streaming to keep students informed of the latest national and international news in approximately 7,000 middle and high schools in the United States.

“Teachers are the key because kids are victims to what the teachers don’t know,” says Robert Leming, director of We the People Programs at the Center for Civic Education, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization in California that promotes civic education. “Good learning hasn’t changed since Aristotle, but there are advantages with technology that can help civic education immensely. Right now everyone is playing in this field. We are in the experimental phase to see what works, and it’s exciting.”

Dawn Reiss is a freelance writer.