American citizens enjoy many rights and freedoms, but they also have a responsibility to be active in local, state, and federal issues. At a minimum, every eligible person should vote in every election. Ideally, Americans of all ages would also become involved in causes they are passionate about. Some believe that civics education can only come through experience.
Although Americans’ knowledge of the operations of their government remains low, improvements in the last 4 years suggest that active engagement brings measurable gains. Clearly, Americans need to be taught foundational civics concepts, but combining education with action is needed to help Americans become more responsible citizens. This article offers insight into the current state of civic knowledge and resources that can help promote civic engagement.
The State of Civics Education
Unfortunately, basic civic knowledge is sorely lacking. Consider that:
- In the latest Annenberg Civics Knowledge Survey, conducted in August 2020, only 51% of adults surveyed were able to name all three branches of government correctly. Almost a quarter (23%) could not name any branches.
- Just 24% of eighth-graders demonstrated proficiency in the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress civics test administered in 2018. Average scores and overall performance have remained essentially flat since the first assessment in 1998.
According to the Brookings Institution, schools are ideally positioned to fill gaps in civics knowledge and address declining participation in civic activities. Americans need to understand how our government works, our rights and duties, and how to engage in civic action. More broadly, civics is a “21st-century skill” that teaches young people how to collaborate with others and respect differing perspectives.
Civics Education Falls Victim to Competing Priorities in U.S. Classrooms
K-12 teachers are required to focus on math and reading skills to prepare students for standardized testing, college, and beyond. This leaves little time to devote to civics and government.
According to the Center for American Progress, only nine states and the District of Columbia require 1 year of civics or government education for high school graduation. Thirty-one states require a half-year, while 10 states have no requirement.
The Civics Education Initiative, a project of the nonprofit Joe Foss Institute, advocates a civics test requirement for high school graduation. The organization promotes the use of the Naturalization Test administered by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. According to the Council of State Social Studies Specialists, 14 states have adopted or are considering legislation requiring such exams. However, critics say that the Naturalization Test consists of 100 factual questions that do little to measure an understanding of civics.
Some states provide curricula, instructional guidelines, professional development, and other resources to help teachers better engage students. Generally, however, civics curriculum tends to focus on the historical origins of the American system of government, the Constitution, and voting. There is little-to-no problem-solving, interpretation of data, or analysis of competing viewpoints. Not surprisingly, students tend to do poorly on the AP U.S. Government Exam, which devotes a significant portion of the test to critical thinking skills.
Additional Civics Education Resources
Several nonprofit groups offer programs and resources that promote and support civics education. Some examples include the following:
- The American Political Science Association offers a variety of online civics resources, including its RAISE the Vote campaign. The organization’s objective is to encourage student engagement in electoral politics.
- The Center for Civic Education offers free, online self-paced courses through its We the People and Strengthening Democracy in America programs. The organization also hosts an online discussion forum for educators and provides free lesson plans, ebooks, and other resources.
- iCivics was founded by former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor in 2010. The organization provides web-based games and activities to help students learn about voting, civil rights, citizenship, and many other topics. There are also free tools for teachers and an educator network that provides training, guidance, and support.
- Generation Citizen provides action-oriented curricula designed to help teachers bring civics to life in the classroom. Students get to choose an issue, develop a plan for addressing it, and then take real action toward their objectives.
- The National Conference of State Legislators has developed the Legislators Back to School Program to encourage state legislators to visit classrooms and discuss civics with students. The organization provides free materials for students of all levels.
Additionally, many state legislatures offer education forums, internships, mock legislative sessions, and other programs to help educate citizens and encourage involvement in the legislative process.
Promoting Civic Engagement
Of course, education is only the beginning. How do you get citizens to apply what they’ve learned by taking action in their communities?
It turns out that current events and issues highlighted in the news have an impact on civic involvement. Although just 51% of respondents to the 2020 Annenberg Civics Knowledge Survey could name all three branches of government, only 39% could do so in 2019.
Survey respondents’ ability to name our First Amendment rights also increased significantly since that question was last asked in 2017. Almost three-quarters (73%) were able to name freedom of speech, up from 48% in 2017, and the number who could name the other four freedoms more than tripled. Only 19% of respondents chose “can’t name any” or “don’t know” in 2020, down from 37% in 2017.
The data suggests that impeachment, nationwide protests, and other events of the past 3 years have increased Americans’ knowledge of their rights. While knowledge of civics is needed for engagement, a compelling interest in civic affairs helps make that knowledge relevant.
Concord Law School Supports Civic Involvement
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