Report Urges Steps to Revitalize Civic Education in U.S. Schools

By Alyssa Morones — November 26, 2013 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

A new report calls for a revitalization of civic education to better prepare young people to become active and engaged citizens and ensure a vibrant democratic society.

It outlines steps to improve civics learning in schools, including getting teachers to move beyond textbooks to get students more directly engaged with primary sources; recognizing and rewarding schools that develop exemplary approaches to civic learning; and teaching not just about rights but also responsibilities, such as “learning what is meant by making a sacrifice for the common good.”

The document, which drew on discussions at a Stanford University conference in February, also suggests that civic education deserves greater attention in state assessment and accountability systems, even as it cautions that this enterprise requires more sophisticated assessments that evaluate the “critical capacities” needed in democratic citizens.

“Historically, public schooling in the United States took on civic education as one of its primary mandates,” says the report, Youth Civic Development and Education, coauthored by Stanford Graduation School of Education Professor William Damon and other experts, including scholars from the University of Washington-Seattle and UCLA. “But in the present environment, schools do not devote sufficient time and effort to civic education; nor is this mandate high on the priority lists of influential policymakers. The civic goal of education is being left unfulfilled and even ignored by many of our schools.”

Three Dimensions

The report highlights three dimensions to an education that fully prepares young people for citizenship:

  • Knowledge--which the report defines as the facts and ideas of democracy, citizenship, the U.S. government, and global concerns that students need to understand in order to be informed participants in civic life;
  • Skills--including the ability to navigate the rules and processes of citizenship and governance;
  • And finally, values--which include democratic ideals and commitment to those ideals that motivate civic commitment.

“Democracy can be sustained only if individual citizens understand and embrace these values, and uphold them through civic activity,” the report says.

It recommends broadening the learning outcomes regularly assessed in schools to include civics, although at the same time the report’s authors warn that testing has a tendency to distort teaching and learning by reducing it to easily-measured outcomes.

“Complex, authentic, performance-based assessment is very difficult to achieve in this area, as it is in other domains. But the importance of civic learning warrants a serious investment in developing assessments that will work toward representing and evaluating the critical capacities we need in citizens of our democracy.”

Tackling Controversial Subjects

The report also cites educators’ tendency to avoid subjects that are more controversial or political and to repress students’ opportunity to explore diverse viewpoints. Rather than shying away from such issues, the authors encourage developing an environment for students to safely discuss potentially polarizing or ideological issues.

“Schools should prepare students for constructive civic life by embracing political controversies and disagreements in the classroom and using them as a teaching tool,” the report says.

The authors also encourage teachers to move beyond textbooks for their lessons. It recommends immersing students in core documents, such as the Declaration of Independence, the Emancipation Proclamation, and Brown v. Board of Education, or contemporary documents, such as political speeches. The report also advises educators to take advantage of programs that are meant to civicly engage students, such as student council or debate clubs.

Tolerance, Responsibility, Cooperation

The report identifies traits that civics classrooms should cultivate--those characteristics necessary to constructive debate and communication. They include: tolerance, open-mindedness, truthfulness, responsibility, diligence, self-control, empathy, and cooperation.

The report’s call call for improved civic education isn’t new. Last year, the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement released a report that indicated only eight states have standardized tests specifically in civics and U.S. government at the high school level. Also, the report said only two states, Ohio and Virginia, require students pass such assessments to graduate.

In 2011, most students lacked civics proficiency, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Only 24 percent of 12th graders scored proficient or advanced in the subject.

The Robert R. McCormick Foundation, an organization that works to improve civic education, recently partnered with the Illinois Civic Mission Coalition with the specific purpose of improving the state’s civics curriculum through the release of its second “Illinois Civic Blueprint.”

A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.