While the Fourth of July evokes patriotism and pride, Constitution Day, celebrated every year on September 17th, seems more centered on civic duty, and, at least this year, a recognition that civic education might need more support than ever.
Between 2011 and 2013, three separate organizations released reports lambasting the state of civic education in the United States. The latest, published last November by Stanford University and the University of Washington, Seattle, lamented that, “Students are not finding inspiration in civic values as taught in schools today, nor are they gaining a sense that they are able to engage effectively in civic and political domains.”
With those kinds of findings in mind, a group of 26 organizations announced Wednesday a joint effort to improve civic education by establishing the Civics Renewal Network. The website promises to be a windfall for civics educators, currently boasting almost 1,000 free resources drawn from the archives of the backing organizations, among others. The curated content can be filtered by such things as subject, grade level, and instructional type.
The new initiative has some heft behind it, backed by sponsors such as the National Archives and Records Administration, the Library of Congress, and the American Bar Association. But fresh resources alone aren’t likely to solve the issue of improving civic education.
“How do we strengthen the practice of civic engagement?” asked William D. Evans, chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, during the public unveiling of CRN at the Newseum in Washington today. “Not just civic engagement, as it’s taught in the classroom, but how do we strengthen the practice of it in our schools? As long as it remains just an abstraction in the classroom, we’re not likely to get very far.”
Congress established Constitution Day in 1952 as part of a movement to increase civic engagement. In 2005, though, Senator Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia championed legislation mandating recognition of Constitution Day in all schools and colleges receiving federal money.
However, Congress’ 2005 mandate did not come with any funding, and Congress gutted civic-education funding in 2011—effectively sending a message that civics is important, but not worth federal dollars.
That conflict has raised concerns among civics educators.
“We’re missing the boat,” said Roger Desrosiers, the Massachusetts state coordinator for the We the People constitutional debate program, in an interview. “The bottom line is, we have a democracy to protect and to promote, and if we’re not educating our young people to be able to monitor, to be able to be vigilant about government—if we’re not doing that, how is our government going to be able to continue?”
The Center for Civic Education runs We the People, a competition program in which classes study and debate different aspects of the Constitution with panels of judges. That program’s $16.5 million annual budget constituted a hefty portion of the funding for civic programs cut by Congress in 2011.
Without that money, CCE withdrew its financial support for participating schools, which often went toward textbook funding. Charles N. Quigley, the center’s director, said that the organization has been unable to help schools raise the money necessary to travel to Washington for the national finals every spring.
“It’s hard,” said Jeff Reiman, a government teacher at Grandview High School, in Aurora, Colo. “We won the state competition in December , and suddenly we were confronted with the fact that we have this opportunity to go to Washington, but it’s going to cost over $30,000 to get my kids [there], some of whom are first-generation Americans—it is a suburban district, but it’s not necessarily a wealthy one.”
Reiman’s class was saved by support from the community, but multiple state teams have been less fortunate.
Lindsey Draper, a juvenile justice compliance monitor for the Wisconsin Department of Justice, and a longtime program judge, praised the program for getting teenagers excited to talk about constitutional issues, rather than merely understanding what’s happening on the news.
“You don’t have a lot of kids who have those discussions,” he said.
Still, the level of funding once enjoyed by CCE wasn’t without critics, some of whom have supported the idea of competitive-grant programs for civic education. Peter Levine, director of the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, has argued for a program similar to Race to the Top, where funding would eventually help scale up programs deemed to be academically and financially effective.
“It is not impossible for federal or state governments to improve civic education, but the effort requires modesty, flexibility, and a willingness to experiment, revise, and try again,” Levine wrote in a piece for Teaching America: The Case for Civic Education, a 2011 compilation of essays on improving programs about government.
Another popular civic-education program, National History Day, is also organized into state competitions, with a national final that took place this year at the University of Maryland, in College Park. The program asks middle and high school students to present original historical research in any number of formats, including video, poster, and live performances.
This year, over 600,000 students participated in that effort, and at least one outside review of the program, done in 2011, suggests real benefits for students; the San Francisco-based research firm Rockman et al used performance assessment tasks to show that the competition improved student writing and researching abilities.
To help allay the cost of travel for that program, schools used to be able to apply for Teaching American History grants, which initially survived Congressional funding cuts in a reduced amount. But the U.S. Department of Education ended the grant in 2011. The National History Day website now recommends that students solicit funds from businesses in the community, or see if their districts have set aside any money for such endeavors.
Civic Knowledge Lacking
Meanwhile, another survey released this week shows that civic education might be as critical as ever. The report, published by the Annenberg Public Policy Center (another CRN contributor), shows a clear lack of civic knowledge among 1,416 adult respondents. Of those surveyed:
• Thirty-six percent could name all three branches of government (executive, legislative, and judicial), down slightly from 38 percent in a 2011 survey;
• Only 38 percent of respondents knew which political party controlled which house of the U.S. Congress (down significantly from 2011, the year that control of the House of Representatives switched to Republicans, while Democrats retained the Senate); and
• Sixty-two percent of respondents knew that the Supreme Court has ultimate authority over the constitutionality of a law, holding steady with 2011.
Forty states require at least one course in American government or civics, though such mandates are often limited to one semester—not necessarily enough time to cover the complex civil history of the United States. Synthesizing that history down to an agreeable set of common standards would likely be a non-starter, too, as demonstrated by Republican backlash to changes on the Advanced Placement U.S. History exam.
And not only is civic knowledge weak, but faith in civic leaders remains low. According to Real Clear Politics, less than 14 percent of Americans currently approve of Congress, and Gallup polling shows many Americans lack faith in public and private institutions.
At the Civics Renewal Network’s unveiling Wednesday, the NEH’s William D. Evans also invoked issues of educational equity, noting that better access to high-quality education for all students could improve civic engagement, and that the other disciplines, including science and engineering classes, could also better integrate civics content.
The unveiling event also featured a downcast panel of scholars and educational leaders, who expressed dismay at the state of civics and American government, with many considering it to be an impending crisis.
“It’s very hard to find leaders who command broad and wide respect,” said Norman Ornstein, a resident scholar at the conservative-leaning American Enterprise Institute.
“We have a systemic problem in the way our political system functions,” said Aspen Institute vice president Mickey Edwards, citing redistricting and the party primary system as major factors.
Still, there may be reasons for optimism that students can be encouraged to see the value in civic responsibility and the change that civilians can make.
“One of the things that’s still very much alive in this country is citizen action,” Edwards noted. “Whether it’s something like the Lilly Ledbetter [Fair Pay] Act, or Mothers Against Drunk Driving, your students can get engaged and make change. It might be frustrating that their one vote in an election might not change the outcome, but they can still make change.”