What We Need to Do About Civic Education

Whether and how well we teach civics are important questions, especially in the midst of an election campaign in which millions of Americans are being asked to sort through complicated issues and navigate an increasingly difficult voting process.

We found recently that 68 percent of young people didn't know whether their state required a photo ID to vote, and 80 percent of the young people didn't know their state's early registration rules. Other news reports have raised the question of whether citizens understand broader issues. In the New York Times online (Sept. 23), Thomas B. Edsall quoted a Romney supporter who explained why President Obama might win that state: "People are stupid. ... [Governments] eliminated civics from our curriculum. The students don't know about civics, they don't know about our history, our government, our constitution."

Edsall had talked to someone with strongly partisan opinions, but his article raised a question of fact: have schools eliminated civics? The liberal mega-blogger Atrios asked whether that is true, and Mother Jones blogger Kevin Drum answered, "Civics is Alive and Well in American High Schools."

So what's the real story? My organization, CIRCLE at Tufts University, recently scanned all the state laws and policies relevant to teaching civics in k-12 schools. Our report, funded by the S.D. Bechtel Jr. Foundation, finds that 39 states require at least one course in American government or civics. In those courses, students learn about citizenship, government, law, current events, and related topics.

All 50 states have standards for the social studies, a broad category that includes disciplines like history and geography as well as civics and government. The topics of power, authority, and government are in all states' standards. Civic ideals and practices (such as the rule of law, or why people vote) are mentioned in every state's standards except Missouri's.

In short, students are still generally required to take civics and to study topics like government and civic ideals. But that does not mean we are doing a good enough job preparing young people to be active and engaged citizens. Several obstacles stand in the way.

First, most states require only one course in government or civics, and it is often assigned at 12th grade. By that time, senioritis has set in, and -- worse -- many students have dropped out of high school. The course is often too little and too late.

Second, both students and teachers know that they must focus on what is tested. The social studies class is required, but it usually involves no standardized test, and that makes it a relatively low priority for faculty and students alike. Just 21 states currently require their students to take a statewide social studies test. This is a dramatic reduction compared to 2001, when 34 states conducted regular assessments on social studies subjects..

In many of the states that do have social studies tests, the stakes are not very high. Just nine states require students to pass the test in order to graduate from high school. Also, the most commonly tested social studies field is history. Only eight states provide standardized tests specifically in civics or American government: California, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Missouri, Ohio, Virginia, and West Virginia. Of those eight, Ohio and Virginia are the only ones that require students to pass that test to graduate from high school, although Maryland and Florida have plans to add such requirements.

The relative lack of testing would be a problem if we were confident that tests encouraged good teaching and learning. But of course, it all depends on the test. Social studies assessments have shifted from a combination of multiple-choice questions, essay questions, and other assignments to almost exclusively multiple-choice exams since 2000. That means that a student preparing for a civics test (if there is a test) may have to memorize how many votes it takes to overcome a veto or which house of Congress must originate revenue bills. That is useful information if you want to assess a president or influence Congress, but it has no value if it is simply stored in short-term memory and the student doesn't see how to apply it. A multiple-choice exam is a poor tool for assessing advanced knowledge or the application of knowledge to complex situations, let alone students' abilities to work together in groups.

Many states do want their students to develop more advanced civic skills. Forty-two states have standards about the "real-world application" of civics, and 41 have standards that somehow involve communication, deliberation, or collective decision-making.

In Connecticut, for example, students are expected to develop and employ the civic skills necessary for effective, participatory citizenship. Iowa's standards require students to be able to analyze a local, state, national issue and prescribe a legislative response.

Oregon students must be able to analyze an event, issue, or problem, propose, compare and judge multiple responses, and engage in informed and respectful deliberation and discussion of issues, events and ideas. And Wisconsin's standards include locating, organizing, analyzing, and using information from various sources to understand an issue of public concern, take a position, and communicate the position.

In my opinion, these are the outcomes that we want -- for the good of our democracy and civil society. But although they are mentioned in many state standards, they are buried among thousands of other standards about concrete, factual information. And they are not tested or otherwise rewarded. No wonder they tend to be low priorities.

Interactive, engaging civic education has been found to boost young people's interest in news and politics for years after graduation. It can also be good for them as individuals, enhancing their motivations to succeed in school.

What we expect of our students in civics classes is a good measure of what kind of nation we hope to be. The question is not whether we are raising young people to vote for Barack Obama or Mitt Romney, but whether they can talk with people who disagree and form and execute good plans for addressing public problems. By that standard, we typically fall short.