In 2003, CIRCLE and Carnegie Corporation of New York jointly produced an important report entitled The Civic Mission of Schools that was widely covered in the press and launched the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools, the nation’s leading advocacy campaign in civics.
Today, the Campaign has issued a successor report (to which CIRCLE contributed), entitled Guardian of Democracy. The new report draws on eight years of additional research and experience and a broader network. It can be downloaded here.
At the dawn of the twenty-first century, America faces many challenges, both at home and abroad. Too often, however, our democracy, the very system that should be able to address those challenges, seems to fall short. A divided citizenry, Washington gridlock, an often-superficial media, and the overwhelming influence of money in politics often prevent government from serving the common good.
While there is no single solution that alone can revitalize our democracy, there is one common sense step our nation can take to strengthen it. Too-often overlooked by politicians, educators, and civic engagement advocates, investing in civic learning strengthens American democracy.
Self-government requires far more than voting in elections every four years. It requires citizens who are informed and thoughtful, participate in their communities, involved in the political process, and possess moral and civic virtues. Generations of leaders, from America’s founders to the inventors of public education to elected leaders in the twentieth century, have understood that these qualities are not automatically transmitted to the next generation – they must be passed down through schools. Ultimately, schools are the guardians of democracy.
Improved civic learning can address many of our democratic shortfalls. It increases the democratic accountability of elected officials, since only informed and engaged citizens will ask tough questions of their leaders. It improves public discourse, since knowledgeable and interested citizens will demand more from the media. It fulfills our ideal of civic equality, by giving every citizen, regardless of background, the tools to be a full participant.
Despite these obvious benefits, a majority of America’s schools either neglect civic learning, or teach it in a minimal or superficial way (too often as an elective). The consequences of this neglect are staggering, but unsurprising. On a recent national assessment in civics, two-thirds of all American students scored below proficient. On the same test, less than one-third of eighth graders could identify the historical purpose of the Declaration of Independence, and fewer than one in five high school seniors were able to explain how citizen participation benefits democracy. Despite the highest levels of voter turnout in over forty years, the 2008 presidential election witnessed nearly one hundred million Americans who were eligible to vote but did not.
A large body of research demonstrates the tangible benefits of civic learning. First and foremost, civic learning promotes civic knowledge, skills, and dispositions – research makes clear that students who received high quality civic learning are more likely than their counterparts to understand public issues, view political engagement as a means of addressing communal challenges, and participate in civic activities. Civic learning has similarly been shown to promote civic equality. Poor, minority, urban, or rural students who do receive high quality civic learning perform considerably higher than their counterparts without, demonstrating the possibility of civic learning to fulfill the ideal of civic equality.
Research also demonstrates non-civic benefits of civic learning. Civic learning has been shown to instill young people with the “twenty-first century competencies” that employers value in the new economy. Schools that implement high quality civic learning are more likely to have a better school climate, and are more likely to have lower dropout rates.
Six proven practices constitute a well-rounded and high quality civic learning experience, and this report details both what they entail and the research demonstrating the advantages of each.
1. Classroom Instruction: Schools should provide instruction in government, history, economics, law, and democracy.
2. Discussion of Current Events and Controversial Issues: Schools should incorporate discussion of current local, national, and international issues and events into the classroom, particularly those that young people view as important to their lives.
3. Service-Learning: Schools should design and implement programs that provide students with the opportunity to apply what they learn through performing community service that is linked to the formal curriculum and classroom instruction.
4. Extracurricular Activities: Schools should offer opportunities for young people to get involved in their schools or communities outside of the classroom.
5. School Governance: Schools should encourage student participation in school governance.
6. Simulations of Democratic Processes: Schools should encourage students to participate in simulations of democratic processes and procedures.
Ensuring the proliferation of these practices requires a range of steps from education stakeholders at every level, but two strategies in particular stand out.
- Policymakers must ensure that civic learning is included alongside English, math, and science as a core subject, emphasized by standards and assessments at the federal, state, and local levels.
- Entities that provide pre-service and in-service teacher professional development should expand and improve their offerings in the area of civic learning.
A full menu of policy recommendations addressed at a variety of audiences can be found on page 44 of this report. These recommendations have been compiled from various stakeholders over the past decade and at a convening of leading civic learning experts in March 2011.
Recommendations for the following groups have been proposed, a sampling of which are below.
Local Schools and Administrators:
- Change how civic learning is taught, from the dry facts of history and the structure of government to an emphasis on how citizens can and must participate in civic life.
- Treat civic learning as an interdisciplinary subject to be employed across the curriculum.
- Develop common standards and assessments in the social studies through a state-led effort, and hold schools and districts accountable for student civic learning achievement by inclusion of civic learning in state assessments and accountability measures.
- Utilize alternative forms of assessment such as group projects and activities or portfolio assessments. These assessments are better suited to assessing student achievement in civic learning then traditional “paper and pencil” tests.
- Require and support high quality, on-going professional development for all social studies and civic learning teachers.
- Establish a competitive grant program for civic learning within the US Department of Education that would fund innovation in civic learning, provide research on effective civic learning strategies, allow for the replication of successful programs that are proven by research, and develop of programs to serve currently under-served school populations.
- Provide state level data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tests in Civics and History, thereby allowing states to know whether they are meeting the civic mission of schools and whether they are adequately serving traditionally undeserved student populations.
- Support the establishment of an award program recognizing civic learning achievement for students and schools. Model this program on the “Blue Ribbon Schools” program to increase attention paid to civic learning at the school level.
Colleges and Universities:
- Require all students, regardless of major, to take at least one engaging civic learning course to overcome any lack of basic civic knowledge and skills and to ensure that all students leave higher education prepared to be informed and engaged citizens.
Scholars and Researchers:
- Develop and implement rigorous studies on innovative civic learning and teaching approaches, and provide data backed evidence of the effectiveness of civic learning approaches, programs, and teaching strategies.
- Corporate foundations need to become more engaged in funding civic learning, especially given that high quality civic learning helps builds the 21st century skills that business community needs in the next generation of workers.
- The philanthropic sector should consider developing a consortium of foundations to coordinate and help fund high quality civic learning.
Parents, the Media and all Citizens:
- Parents are the first and best civics teachers. Parents should encourage their children to develop an interest in keeping themselves informed on current events, encourage their children to take an interest in and volunteer in their community, and help their children develop civic skills and habits.
- Citizens from all walks of life can help their schools by volunteering time and resources to help schools provide effective civic learning.
All American children need to have the civic knowledge, skills, and dispositions necessary to participate in, preserve, and strengthen our republic. This can only be achieved if all these groups embrace the civic mission of schools and work together to promote high-quality civic learning. By renewing this commitment, America can live up to the ideal of a government of the people, by the people, and for the people.