U.S. Must Bolster Civic Learning in Schools, Report Says

By Erik W. Robelen — September 19, 2011 3 min read
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American democracy is falling short amid Washington gridlock, a divided citizenry, and the “overwhelmingly influence of money in politics,” declares a new report. The answer? Well, the authors say, “there is no single solution” but they suggest that reinvigorating civic education in schools is an important and desperately needed step. And they call for a series of actions, such as holding schools and districts accountable for student achievement in civics and establishing a federal awards program for excellence in civic learning modeled on the Blue Ribbon Schools program.

“Ultimately, schools are the guardians of democracy,” says the report, coauthored by several organizations, including the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools—co-chaired by former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor—and the American Bar Association’s Division for Public Education. “Improved civic learning can address many of our democratic shortfalls.”

The report comes on the heels of recent national test data suggesting that most U.S. students lack a “proficient” level of knowledge and skills in civics. Recentresults for U.S. history were also troubling. For example, just 17 percent of 8th graders were rated proficient or higher.

The report provides an array of recommendations for different audiences. For example, it suggests that:

• Schools should treat civic learning as “an interdisciplinary subject to be employed across the curriculum";

• States should develop common standards and assessments in social studies and “hold schools and districts accountable for student civic learning achievement";

• Federal policymakers should establish a competitive grant program for civic learning and provide state-level data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress in civics and history; and

• Colleges and universities should require all students, regardless of major, to take at least one “engaging civic learning course”.

(I should note that on the idea of creating a new federal civics education program, advocates may not want to hold their breath. Congress doesn’t seem to be in much of a mood to create new education programs these days. In fact, two civics programs at the U.S. Department of Education were recently dealt a heavy blow. In fiscal 2011, federal aid for theWe the People program was zeroed out, while the Cooperative Civic Education and Economic Education Exchange Program saw its funding slashed to $1.2 million, down from $13.4 million the prior year. In addition, the Teaching American History grants program was reduced by more than half, to $46 million.)

In a message included with the civics report, Justice O’Connor and the co-chair of the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools, former U.S. Representative Lee Hamilton of Indiana, made their case for why students need a firm grounding in civics.

“In a democracy in which the final authority rests with the people, our local, state, and federal governments will only be as responsive and great as citizens demand them to be,” they write. “Knowledge of our system of governance and our rights and responsibilities as citizens is not passed along through the gene pool.”

They add: “Each generation of Americans must be taught these basics. Families and parents have a key role to play, yet our schools remain the one universal experience we all have to gain civic knowledge and skills.”

Other organizations that helped produce the report include the Leonore Annenberg Institute for Civics, at the University of Pennsylvania, theNational Conference on Citizenship, and the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) at Tufts University.

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