Social Studies

What’s In High School Civics Standards? A New Analysis Offers Clues

By Stephen Sawchuk — December 16, 2019 3 min read
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Do states’ high school civics programs explicitly teach the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights? What about the democratic system compared to other systems of government? What about avenues for public participation in A democracy? How about state and local voting rules?

The Center for American Progress has waded into these very deep curricular weeds in a new report issued Monday—an update of sorts to its 2018 report on civics education. In it, analysts looked to see whether states included those four above-named topics, plus a fifth area: Media literacy and the role and influence of media on public debate.

It is probably the most extensive look to date at the actual content of these courses. (Much of the current civics education policy discussion has focused more on the appropriate length and amount of the classes, teaching approaches, and whether students should be tested, rather than nitty-gritty content details.)

The left-leaning think tank’s findings are a bit of the glass-half-full-or-half-empty variety. One the one hand, more than half the states—26 of them—got full marks for covering all five areas. And 33 of them included some mention of media literacy, which is still a pretty new addition to the civics curriculum. But those policies don’t always seem to be translating into better knowledge of U.S. civic foundations, preparation to vote, higher rates of civic engagement, or smart consumption of news. Recently, for example, researchers found that young people struggle with identifying whether sources of information they find online are trustworthy.

CAP analysts really did yeomen’s (and women’s) work putting this together: They went through each state’s specific standards or course outline for high school civics or government class. (General social studies and history standards weren’t reviewed.)

Education Week has spent 18 months and counting reporting on civics education. Here’s what we’ve learned so far.

As noted above, most states that had standards did a pretty good job covering these five core areas. And while 10 states did not have high school-level standards, that doesn’t necessarily mean that students in them are getting substandard preparation either, noted Ashley Jeffrey, a CAP policy analyst who conducted the research. For example, Vermont lacks standards but has a robust civics program and its students tend to score well on external measures of civics preparation, like the AP U.S Government and Politics exam, she noted.

Nor does it say much about preparation before students reach high school. Arizona’s K-8 school standards were pretty strong, specifically mentioning the Bill of Rights and the U.S. Constitution. Counterintuitively, the state’s high school standards weren’t as specific about those topics, so the state didn’t get credit for that indicator.

You’ll want to take a close look at the full tally, which specifies which of the topics were missing from which standards. For the cheat sheet, though, check out our map below.

The CAP analysis comes right as another national initiative aiming to specify core content that should be included in states’ history and civics standards gets underway. The National Endowment for the Humanities and the U.S. Department of Education awarded $650,000 to iCivics and several universities to undertake that project.

The CAP analysis also profiles a few states’ civic-engagement plans, including Maryland, where 16- and 17-year olds are preregistered to vote and some cities have lowered the age for voting in municipal elections. As usual, though, the story is often a complicated one. As Education Week reported earlier this year, teen voters aged 18 to 19 were far less likely to vote in Maryland than the larger category of 18- to 29-year-old voters. (Some states had far smaller gaps in turnout among these two age categories, and in Nevada, 18- and 19-year-olds actually turned out at higher rates than older peers.)

Image credit: Getty/Laura Baker, Education Week

A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.