10 Core Insights on Civics Education, and How to Improve it

By Stephen Sawchuk — November 14, 2019 2 min read

The presidential impeachment inquiry playing out in Congress right now offers yet another teachable moment for civics.

But, as Education Week’s 18-month investigation of civics has shown, civics teaching doesn’t happen in schools as much as it should. It’s not always required, for one reason, and, at a time when the nation is deeply polarized, teachers sometimes prefer to avoid politcally controversial topics like impeachment. Yet this post-Parkland generation of students seems to be deeply interested in becoming civically engaged.

Read on to see what else we learned about the civics-teaching landscape from our Citizen Z project and how educators are trying to improve it.

1. Most states only teach civics at the high school level, and only briefly. Just eight states required a yearlong course, an Education Week survey found. About half the states require only a semester.

2. States are introducing record numbers of civics education bills and initiatives, some inspired by pioneering work in Florida, Massachusetts, and Illinois.

3. Much of students’ early exposure to civics is in history class, and arguments about history content are often really arguments about civic values. A better approach to traditional textbook narratives might be allowing students to draw conclusions for themselves after examining primary sources.

4. Teenagers’ civic engagement is rising, not falling. 18- and 19-year-olds voted at historic rates in the 2018 midterm elections, at 23 percent. In fact, in four states, 1 in 3 eligible teens voted.

5. Youth activism is booming post-Parkland. But many schools have struggled to connect it to their formal civics preparation. Our stories traced the evolution of the largest wave of student activism since the late 1960s, but students often felt as though their on-the-ground learning was divorced from their classroom learning.

6. In fact, public schools frequently undercut the civic messages that they’re supposed to be inculcating in students. Strict discipline regimes, a lack of youth voice in decisionmaking, and a Supreme Court that has curbed students’ constitutional rights all exacerbate the problem.

7. And though many school boards have student members, it’s rare for those students to have real voting privileges or responsibilities. That’s despite the lip service most pay to “student voice.”

8. Many civics education groups are pushing for reforms. But there are some tensions on the best way forward. In general, the debate centers on the right mix of a traditional content-based approach and the newer “action civics,” which focuses more on using local civic channels to solve problems.

9. The impeachment inquiry and other recent current events are ripe for high-quality, relevant teaching. But teachers are hesitant to engage. A lack of high-quality resources and fears that they’ll be accused of partisanship is preventing many from prioritizing these topics.

10. Civics education could reach the U.S. Supreme Court. A federal lawsuit filed in Rhode Island argues that that state’s civic education is so poor, it’s violated students’ constitutional rights.

There’s so much more in our ambitious, ongoing Citizen Z project. Start with these highlights, then read the whole series.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.


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