School & District Management

Celebrities Lend Weight to Promote Civics Education

By Mary Ann Zehr — August 20, 2009 8 min read
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Actor Richard Dreyfuss, former U.S. Sen. Bob Graham, two retired U.S. Supreme Court justices, and several nonprofit organizations are each working on a piece of the puzzle of how to ensure that civics education gains a bigger foothold in the K-12 curriculum.

Their goal is to generate broader support for the subject in federal and state policy. Many states require students to acquire only half a credit in civics or U.S. government to earn a diploma, according to the Denver-based Education Commission of the States. And at least a dozen states do not require civics or U.S. government at all.

Retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor has focused on expanding students’ understanding of the judicial system and is helping to promote online interactive games on that topic for middle schoolers. Mr. Dreyfuss is crafting a national curriculum on civics education. Mr. Graham, a former Democratic senator from Florida, has written a book, America: The Owner’s Manual, to inform youths and others on navigating the legislative system. And retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice David H. Souter is collaborating with educators in his home state of New Hampshire to improve civics education there. Mr. Souter also made the case for more civics education nationally in a speech to the American Bar Association this month.

Statistics abound about how little students know about civics. For instance, only one-third of Americans can name all three branches of the U.S. government, according to a 2007 poll by the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. A mere 3.5 percent of high school students in Arizona passed the U.S. citizenship test typically given to immigrants, a study conducted this year by the Phoenix-based nonprofit group the Goldwater Institute found.

From 1998 to 2006, students’ scores on civics on the National Assessment of Educational Progress increased for 4th graders, but not significantly for 8th or 12th graders. In 2006, only 32 percent of seniors scored at or above “proficient” or “advanced” on the NAEP in civics.

Classroom Convention

It’s a myth, however, that schools once taught civics and now they don’t, said Peter Levine, the director of the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, or CIRCLE, at Tufts University in Medford, Mass. “Some people start with the story line, ‘Back in the day we used to do civics and now we don’t,’ and it’s not really true,” he said. The American government or civics course has been a steady presence in the curriculum for more than 80 years, and about 80 percent of students take the class, he said.

But Mr. Levine says the school climate for effectively teaching civics depends on whether the curriculum has room for discussion of current events. Finding that space in elementary and middle schools has become more challenging since the implementation of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, which emphasizes school accountability for mathematics, reading, and science, but not for social studies, he said. The problem with civics education now, Mr. Levine contends, is that it isn’t usually taught in an interactive way. “What we’re interested in is kids’ developing reasoned opinions,” he said.

One person who is backing increased interactivity for civics is Justice O’Connor. Last spring, as a guest on “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart,” produced by Comedy Central, she made a pitch for interactive games about the judicial system produced by Our Courts. She also expressed disappointment that more states don’t require civics education.

Justice O’Connor on “The Daily Show”


In an interview with Education Week this month, Justice O’Connor said she became interested in civics education while on the Supreme Court. “As a member of the U.S. Supreme Court, I was very much aware of criticisms of judges by some members of Congress and state legislators—expression by some people that judges were just secular, activist humanists who were trying to impose their will on the people,” she said.

Justice O’Connor said she felt those comments showed a lack of understanding of the role of an independent judiciary. After she left the court, she got involved in helping identify ways to improve civics education. She said she believes it’s appropriate to focus on middle schoolers because students at that age have an eagerness to learn and are “not yet bored teenagers.”

“They are soon going to be the adults running the nation, and we want our nation to function,” Justice O’Connor added. “If people don’t know the system of government we have, about the three branches of government and what citizens are expected to do, we won’t succeed.”

Some civics advocates believe the subject is getting short shrift because social studies is getting compressed in the curriculum. They contend that school districts have narrowed their curricula to focus on the subjects that must be tested under the NCLB law.

Susan Griffin, the executive director of the National Council for the Social Studies, in Silver Spring, Md., says her organization views all the subjects that make up social studies, such as history and geography, as preparation for effective citizenship. “When that instruction time gets reduced—it might be a civics class—but overall, they aren’t learning basic U.S. history, which informs civics, or they may not have a good picture of how our government compares with another.”

Ms. Griffin cites a 2007 survey by the Center on Education Policy, a Washington-based research and advocacy group, showing 44 percent of the nation’s school districts reported that they had cut back on the teaching of other subjects to focus on reading and math.

“Until the message gets to policymakers that they will have to make space for [civics] in the curriculum, and we should be offering all students a rich curriculum to prepare them for college, careers, and citizenship, it doesn’t matter how many big names there are [engaged in promoting civics education],” Ms. Griffin said.

Advocates point to social studies at the elementary level as being most affected by the NCLB law because of its testing requirements: annual testing in grades 3 to 8 and once in high school.

A study this year by CIRCLE, however, says the trend in elementary schools toward spending more time on reading and math and less on science, the arts, and social studies started in the 1990s, before passage of the law.

Federal Funding

While some supporters of civics education say the No Child Left Behind Act has compressed the amount of time for social studies, and thus civics, the law authorizes funding specifically for the subject. In fiscal 2009, Congress appropriated $33.4 million for programs under the Education for Democracy Act, which is part of the NCLB law. Of that amount, $17 million went to We the People: The Citizen and the Constitution, a program that distributes free textbooks and offers free teacher professional development about the Constitution to both primary and secondary schools.

Mark J. Molli, the associate director of the Center for Civic Education in Calabasas, Calif., which administers We the People, says U.S. presidents have not always included the Education for Democracy Act programs in their proposed budgets. President Barack Obama slashed money for those programs in his proposed fiscal 2010 budget. But Mr. Molli says that even when the last two administrations didn’t support funding for civics some years, Congress always restored it. An appropriations bill passed recently by the House of Representatives calls for $35 million for the civics programs. The Senate appropriations committee would provide $33.5 million.

The Center for Civic Education gives away 11,000 classroom sets of books about the Constitution each year. It also hosts a competition for students across the nation to participate in simulated congressional hearings that take place at the congressional district, state, and national levels.

Robert S. Leming, the director of We the People, said his organization has tried to work around the requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act to get elementary schools interested in teaching civics. “Because of NCLB, the emphasis is on reading and math, but you have to read something, so why not read about the Constitution?” he says.

Equity Considerations

Meanwhile, Street Law Inc. is promoting civics by supporting classes that teach students about the nation’s laws. The Silver Spring, Md.-based nonprofit organization provides textbooks, along with law students who co-teach with classroom teachers. About 200,000 students take law electives using the textbooks each year, according to Lee Arbetman, the director of U.S. programs for Street Law.

Mr. Arbetman said the textbooks and classes focus on practical considerations about what students need to know about the law. “Kids are not asking, ‘Why do I need to learn this?’ ” he said, because they can see the relevance of learning about their legal rights.

Some educators who have been involved in civics education over the long haul are concerned that not only is the subject not reaching enough students, but it also may not be reaching privileged students and disadvantaged ones equally. A study released by Tufts’ CIRCLE last year found that a student’s race and academic track and a school’s average socioeconomic status determine opportunities for school-based learning that promotes voting and broader forms of civic engagement.

Mr. Levine says CIRCLE has been trying to make educators aware of the inequality and rectify the problem.

Proponents of civics education talk about how the subject has to be better supported in big-picture ways, by state and federal policy, rather than primarily by famous individuals and nonprofit groups.

“If you ask thoughtful people, ‘Shouldn’t schools prepare students to be thoughtful participants in democracy?,’ everyone thinks so,” said Street Law’s Mr. Arbetman, “but we haven’t connected the dots.”

A version of this article appeared in the August 26, 2009 edition of Education Week as Celebrities Confer Cachet to Civics Education


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