- What Students are Learning
- Gaps in Instruction
- How U.S. Students Perform
- Service and Learning
- Classroom Discussions
- State Policies
What Students are Learning
In 2006, most civics courses emphasize traditional themes. From the 2006 Civic and Political Health of the Nation Report we found that students reported (41 percent) “the Constitution or the U.S. system of government and how it works” as the number one mentioned theme in civics courses. The other themes, in descending order were “wars and military battles” (32 percent), “great American heroes and the virtues of the American form of government” (26 percent), and tied for fourth place were “problems facing the country today” (11 percent) and “racism and other forms of injustice in the American system” (11 percent).
Young people who report that they recently choose to take a civics or government class are more likely than other young people to say that:
- they helped solve a community problem,
- they can make a difference in their community,
- they have volunteered recently,
- they trust other people and the government,
- they have made consumer decisions for ethical or political reasons,
- they believe in the importance of voting, and
- they are registered to vote.
Gaps in Instruction
- Recent data shows persistent and serious gaps in participatory activities that require civic skills between Americans adults and youth of various backgrounds. Education, income, ethnicity, and immigration status are all strong predictors of civic participation and civic skill acquisition Our analysis of various national and federal datasets indicates that this declining national trend in some indicators of civic participation may be due, in part, to declining and unequal opportunities to build civic skills at schools, at home, and in communities and neighborhoods.
- Unfortunately, fewer public schools offer school-based service-learning opportunities now than a decade ago. A recent study by the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS, 2008) found that only 24% of schools offered formal service learning in 2008, compared to 32% in 1999.
- The consequence of unequal civic learning experiences is not only that disadvantaged students lack civic skills, but they also suffer academically. Similar to Davila and Mora (2007), our analysis of ELS data shows that youth who have civic learning opportunities 8are more likely to follow a positive academic trajectory, which can include staying in school and preparing for college.
- The opportunity to participate in community service through one’s school appears to have academic benefits. As seen in the figures below, students who participate in community service as 10th graders are far more likely to take college entrance exams and far less likely to have dropped out of school by 12th grade.
In CIRCLE Working Paper (#51) “The Civic Achievement Gap,” Meira Levinson identifies a gap in civic achievement between students of different races and socio-economic and immigration status. Her research finds that poor, non-white students demonstrate lower levels of civic and political knowledge, skills, positive attitudes toward the state, and participation than their wealthier and white counterparts. Furthermore, a study by Joseph Kahne and Ellen Middaugh of over 2,000 California high school students finds that access to school-based opportunities to develop civic commitments and capacities are unevenly distributed: college-bound students have significantly more access to these opportunities than students not planning to attend college.
Students of color and students from low-education families were the least likely to report experiencing interactive classroom learning activities such as role-playing exercises, mock trials, visits from community members, or letter writing. (from NAEP, see p 24*)
How U.S Students Perform
- About two out of three American students at grades 4, 8, and 12 have at least a basic knowledge of civics according to the 2006 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). Average scores improved from 1998 to 2006 only at grade 4. Most of this improvement was seen among lower-performing students. (NAEP 2006 Civics)
- American 14-year-olds perform well in international comparisons of civic and political knowledge, but the range between the best and worst prepared students is exceptionally large in the U.S.(from IEA data, see p. 14*, see also Strengths and Weaknesses in U.S. Students’ Knowledge and Skills)
- Students perform better on tests of civic knowledge & skills if they have studied a range of subjects such as the Constitution, U.S. History, and Government. (from NAEP 1998, see p. 23*)
- 15-26-year-olds who have taken civics classes are 23 percentage points more likely to believe they are responsible for making things better for society and 14 percentage points more likely to vote than their peers who have not taken civics.
14-year-olds who believe they can make a difference in the way their school is run are more interested in current events than other youth. (from IEA data, see p. 27*)
Source: *The Civic Mission of Schools
Service and learning
Unfortunately, fewer public schools offer school-based service-learning opportunities now than a decade ago. A recent study by the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS, 2008) found that only 24% of schools offered formal service learning in 2008, compared to 32% in 1999.
Furthermore, the CNCS study (2008) found that schools that are located in lower-income areas were significantly less likely to offer service learning than more affluent schools at the elementary, middle, and high school levels. According to CNCS’s survey of school principals, the challenges in implementing service-learning are related to other priorities that schools have to deal with (e.g., academic requirements, standardized test scores), lack of funding and other resources, lack of professional development opportunities to learn about service-learning, and a lack of awareness about policies encouraging service-learning in schools. The schools with lower funding and resources are more likely to face these challenges than more affluent schools.
Davila and Mora (2007) found that required community service leads to higher academic performance in reading, mathematics, science, and history. Moreover, required community service, more so than voluntary service, also increases the odds of subsequent college graduation. These positive effects vary across gender and race and ethnicity.
High schools are most likely to offer service learning; in 2004 44% of high schools offered service-learning compared to 38% of middle schools and 25% of elementary schools. (see: Service Learning in K-12 Public Education)
Ten years ago only 9% of high schools offered community service. (see: Service Learning in K-12 Public Education and p. 25*)
Sources: Civic Skills and Federal Policy, Working Paper 52: Civic Engagement and High School Academic Progress: An Analysis Using NELS Data andWorking Paper 53: Do Gender and Ethnicity Affect Civic Engagement and Academic Progress?,
The vast majority of students (80%) reported that they were encouraged to form their own opinions regarding these issues. Slightly more than one-half reported that their classes required them to keep up with politics or government by reading the newspaper, watching television, or going to the Internet. (Lopez and Kirby 2007)
Students who participate in classroom discussions about current issues have a greater interest in politics, improved critical thinking & communication skills, more civic knowledge, and greater interest in discussing public affairs outside of school.
(The Civic Mission of Schools p. 24*)
Working Paper #72: The Classroom-Kitchen Table Connection by Vercellotti and Matto whowed that active political discussions and readings in classroom settings increase levels of political invovlement. However, the study also showed that without proper maintenance of these habits, this interest fades over time.
More specifically, discussion of international issues, hotly contested issues, and basic civic education concepts (such as the electoral college or citizens’ rights) were found to have positive effects on students’ civic knowledge, concerns about their economic future, and concerns about the unjust treatment of others. (Syvertsen, Flanagan, and Stout 2007)
Research suggests that classroom instruction in civic topics likely produces long term benefits. An ongoing evaluation of the Kids Voting USA civics curriculum found that 2 years after the program ended, students who participated in the program were still more likely to discuss current issues outside of class and to follow the news than their counterparts who did not participate. (McDevitt and Kiousis 2006)
All 50 states and the District of the Columbia (D.C.) have a requirement to teach material or offer at least one course in civics and/or government. However, few standards cover skills and dispositions as well as knowledge.
As of 2011, only 19 states include civic learning in their state assessment / accountability systems, generally as part of an overall social studies assessment, including history, geography, state history and economics.
Service learning is in about half of High Schools.
* Complete citations can be found in The Civic Mission of Schools
- The Classroom-Kitchen Table Connection
- Youth Attitudes toward Civility in Politics
- A Five-Year Evaluation of a Comprehensive High School Civic Engagement Initiative
- Predicting Civic Engagement in Urban High School Students
- Does Context matter? How the Family, Peer, School, and Neighborhood Contexts Relate to Adolescents’ Civic Engagement
- The Long-Term Impact of High School Civics Curricula on Political Knowledge, Democratic Attitudes and Civic Behaviors
Last Updated: 6/27/2012