Curriculum Opinion

Civics Education Shouldn’t Put Students to Sleep

By Scott Warren & Andrew Wilkes — October 10, 2017 3 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

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.

Related Tags:

Follow the Education Week Commentary section on Facebook and Twitter. Sign up to get the latest Education Week Commentaries in your email inbox.
A version of this article appeared in the October 11, 2017 edition of Education Week as Civics Education Shouldn’t Put Students to Sleep


Classroom Technology Webinar Building Better Blended Learning in K-12 Schools
The pandemic and the increasing use of technology in K-12 education it prompted has added renewed energy to the blended learning movement as most students are now learning in school buildings (and will likely continue

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Curriculum Opinion Media Coverage of Critical Race Theory Misses the Mark
News accounts of critical race theory focus on topics that are not particularly controversial, while neglecting those that are.
4 min read
Image shows a multi-tailed arrow hitting the bullseye of a target.
DigitalVision Vectors/Getty
Curriculum A 'War on Books': Conservatives Push for Audits of School Libraries
After Texas banned critical race theory in schools, battles grew heated in the conservative suburbs surrounding the state's largest cities.
Molly Hennessy-Fiske, Los Angeles Times
12 min read
Image of books.
Curriculum Texas Lawmaker Demands Districts Provide Lists of Books on Racism, Black Lives Matter, LGBTQ
The Texas attorney general candidate's request has received criticism from educator groups who say the inquiry is politically motivated.
Eleanor Dearman, Fort Worth Star-Telegram
3 min read
Image of books on a library shelf.
Curriculum Teachers' Use of Standards-Aligned Curricula Slowed During the Pandemic
More math teachers are using standards-aligned materials than English/language arts teachers, according to RAND survey results.
4 min read
Illustration of a grading rubric.
priyanka gupta/iStock/Getty