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Civics Education in Schools Gains Steam

Growing efforts to teach children and teens about the workings of government, history and civil debate could change the focus of curriculum, as well as reshape how a generation thinks about America

by Lee Hawkins for The Wall Street Journal

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How do Americans on opposite sides of the culture wars find common ground? How do people from across the political spectrum engage in knowledgeable and productive dialogue? How do we strengthen the country’s constitutional democracy?

For many education experts, the answer is to start in the classroom.

In March, 300 scholars, educators and practitioners outlined a long-term vision to rework K-12 civics education in America, called the Educating for American Democracy Initiative. The same month, Democratic Sen. Christopher Coons and Republican Sen. John Cornyn introduced the “Civics Secures Democracy Act,” which calls for a $1 billion investment in teaching U.S. history and civics at the K-12 level. The growing efforts to teach children and teens about the workings of government, history and civil debate could change the focus of curriculum, as well as reshape how a generation thinks about the nation. Still, supporters acknowledge they face headwinds, including the need win over states and school districts, as well as criticism from some conservative groups.

The federal government now spends 5 cents per student per year on civics, compared with about 50 cents on STEM, or science, technology, engineering and math, according to the initiative. Fewer than a quarter of American eighth-graders get at least a “proficient” score in civics on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a standardized test that assesses U.S. students in various subjects, the group says.

It all amounts to “a 50-year erosion” of civic education that poses challenges to sustaining the country’s constitutional democracy and civic strength, amid increasing political polarization and inequality, the group says. The initiative was funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities and the U.S. Department of Education.

“It’s not that we’ve tried and failed, it’s that we haven’t tried at all,” says Louise Dube, chair of the initiative’s steering committee. “Not all students are going to go to college or even go into a trade, but all of our students will become members of our communities. The number one job is to create a community in which we solve problems together,” she adds.

With the aim of giving students the knowledge, skills and disposition to participate in a democratic society, the group issued a series of recommendations: provide teachers with ongoing civics education and professional development, adopt more rigorous social studies standards and requirements, and build more breadth and depth into instructional materials. One proposal involves creating civic-centered fellowships that encourage recent college graduates to become teachers.

“Not all students are going to go to college or even go into a trade, but all of our students will become members of our communities. The number one job is to create a community in which we solve problems together.”
— Louise Dube, chair of the Educating for American Democracy Initiative’s steering committee

The group says it wants states to evolve from the traditional approach to curriculum—listing a series of events and concepts for students to learn—and embrace an “inquiry focus” that encourages students to explore open-ended questions from multiple perspectives. Topics would include how the system of American constitutional democracy came to be and what it means to participate in it, the place of the U.S. in the world, and the debates that characterize contemporary American civic life. Instead of focusing on facts about the Constitutional Convention or Shay’s Rebellion, for example, lessons would pose questions, such as “How did the institution of enslavement and practices of indigenous removal and even extermination affect national unity in the U.S.?” Or, “Why does a society need shared rules and what do rules do?”

The goal is to give 60 million students access to high-quality civic learning opportunities and to create 100,000 schools that are “civic ready” by 2030, meaning they have executed a plan to prepare students for engaging in civic life in their communities and created tools to measure progress.

Creating this future will require buy-in at the local community, state and national levels, including securing budgetary support, Ms. Dube says. The group is speaking with district and school officials to apply the group’s recommendations, she says.

The initiative has gained support from more than 120 organizations, including the American Bar Association and the American Political Science Association. Some 57% of likely voters, including an equal number of Republicans and Democrats, say that civic education for K-12 students would have the biggest impact on strengthening American identity, according to a poll of 1,000 likely voters conducted last summer by Frank Luntz, for CivxNow, a project of iCivics, a nonpartisan organization that provides online games and lesson plans to promote civics education. Ms. Dube is its executive director.
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Some conservative groups, including the Heritage Foundation, have criticized the initiative as a pretext for teaching left-wing ideas. Jonathan Butcher, the group’s Will Skillman Fellow in Education, says that civics education must be improved, but that education is a state and local policy concern.

“It’s not Washington’s responsibility, constitutionally, to tell schools what to teach,” he says. “And even creating incentives for schools to adopt certain standards, it winds up putting state officials really in a position where they’re just checking a box.”

Paula McAvoy, an associate professor of social studies education at North Carolina State University, who is not affiliated with the initiative but says it has a lot of value, says that continued political polarization will likely make it hard for schools to adopt the initiative’s recommendations.

“We’re in a moment in which there’s incredible disagreement about whether democracy is a good idea in the first place, what a good democracy looks like, what civility looks like and what truth looks like,” she says. “And because we have all this churning in the public about what a good society is, I think this initiative bumps up against the very thing it’s trying to fix.”

Investment in civics education will help arm students with more background knowledge and deeper insight into the context, nuances and complexities of domestic and international political systems and issues, such as why the U.S. considers the Middle East to be economically and politically important, says Ashley Rogers Berner, director of the Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy and a senior adviser on the initiative.

“The research is becoming clearer that students need access to copious amounts of background knowledge about the world to make sense of their experiences and to become good citizens,” she says.

Alexandra Henderson, a 17-year-old freshman at Louisiana State University studying political communication, participated in a yearlong iCivics youth fellowship. The program helped her get her current job as a legislative assistant and communications intern for Louisiana State Sen. Greg Tarver.

Eventually, she hopes to work in federal government, and believes that a deeper national investment in civics education will give her children and grandchildren an edge over previous generations.

“People don’t understand what the government is supposed to do for them and what the government cannot do,” she says. “Civics education isn’t where it is supposed to be, but that won’t be the case 30 years from now.”