Civics Education Shouldn't Put Students to Sleep

Rote memorization won’t make students active citizens

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This year, students across the country are encountering an unforgiving climate. Some of these climate challenges are literal—the disasters of Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, Jose, and Maria. Some of them are manifested through polarized and toxic politics. And some are educational, as the debate on school choice heats up in a struggle for the heart of public education.

Now, more than ever, it is incumbent to prioritize educating young people to become active citizens, leaders capable of tackling the problems they face in their communities head on. We need a nationwide embrace of civics education that brings the subject back into the curriculum. But just as important, civics education must be revitalized. Civics should not be a subject that's very mention makes people fall asleep. It can—and must—be the most exciting and the most important class in school.


Calling for a renewed focus on civics for young people may seem trite. In the wake of the vitriolic 2016 presidential election, many have called for a return to the original goal of public education—to ensure that young people are capable of assuming the mantle of our democracy as informed citizens. Educators and public officials alike speak of the importance of "civics education." Indeed, test scores support this widespread perception that we are not adequately prioritizing civics in America's schools: only a quarter of 8th graders scored "proficient" or above in the most recent civics section of the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

And this concerning trend is not limited only to young people: Only 26 percent of Americans can name all three branches of government, according to a recent survey from the Annenberg Public Policy Center. A third cannot name any at all. More than a third cannot name any of the rights guaranteed under the First Amendment.

These statistics are dire. It is challenging to be an effective citizen if you do not know how government works. As long as students have an inadequate understanding of how our political system works, civic engagement will remain poor.

"We need a nationwide embrace of civics education that brings the subject back into the curriculum."

Strengthening democracy requires deepening young people's grasp of essential facts—naming the branches of government, identifying the Bill of Rights, and so on. In response to this trend, a handful of states have already begun to require that students pass the U.S. citizenship test in order to graduate from high school. At face value, this may make sense.

But this is the wrong solution. When Sputnik was launched by the Russians into orbit, the response was not to ensure that all of America's students memorized the periodic table. Instead, we began a nationwide movement focused on educating young people to master science, technology, engineering, and math. Yes, in order to launch a rocket into space, a mastery of the periodic table is probably necessary. But the skills required to solve complex scientific problems are more relevant.

Similarly, teaching rote civics is insufficient in tackling the most pressing problems in our democracy. Let us not fall into the trap of focusing on the facts that students don't know. We need a new approach.

This is what we are trying to do with Action Civics, a project-based approach to civics education first coined by the nonprofit Mikva Challenge and developed in coordination with Generation Citizen (where we serve as the CEO and director of policy and advocacy, respectively) and one of a number of initiatives trying to engage a new generation of citizens in the rights and responsibilities of democracy. Rather than sitting through a lecture on the three branches of government and taking a test, middle and high school students learn civics by taking action on issues they care about. They might, for example, explore the issue of police-community relations by learning about executive mayoral oversight of the police department, while simultaneously advocating for legislative policy that will address a lack of body cameras. After learning about the role of climate change in the recent hurricanes, they can pressure their local governments to explore alternative forms of energy or upgrade the town sewage system. As they learn about pH levels in chemistry class, they might measure their school's water safety and present their findings to their local sanitation department.

Suddenly, civics is not boring. It is the most relevant class in school.

Let's use the crisis in our democracy as a moment to revitalize civics education. Let's not just return to the past. If we can make civics the most exciting class in school for young people, imagine the wonders that can do for our democracy.

Vol. 37, Issue 08, Page 15

Published in Print: October 11, 2017, as Civics Education Shouldn't Put Students to Sleep
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