Experts Discuss Trends and Challenges in Civic Education
By Shawntaye Hopkins, CSG communications associate
In a recent CSG eCademy webinar titled, “Civics in the States: What It Is and Why It Is Needed,” experts discussed trends in civic education and the challenges states and schools face in improving civic education and civic engagement among students.
Richard Greene, a CSG senior fellow and co-author of The Council of State Governments’ report, “Civic Education: A Key to Trust in Government,” moderated the discussion and stressed the importance of advancing civic education in America.
“Over the course of time, civic education has taken a backseat in public schools and universities alike, and it’s an open question as to how people can possibly be expected to trust an entity that they simply don’t understand,” Greene said.
Abby Kiesa is director of impact at The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, or CIRCLE, an independent, nonpartisan research center that focuses on using research to improve youth civic engagement and civic education through policy and practice.
“We have a lot of factors, nationally and locally—and they can manifest differently on those different levels—that are impacting the current state of youth civic education,” Kiesa said.
Demographics, for example, impact the success of civic education. Research suggests that one size does not fit all when it comes to civic education, Kiesa said. Also, polarization can impact civics curricula and present barriers to policy discussions in classrooms.
“In a 2013 survey of civics and government teachers, one-quarter of the teachers thought that parents or other adults would object if politics were discussed in a government class,” Kiesa said. “So, this is the level to which polarization can affect what happens in the classroom.”
Kiesa said many states require civics courses but the material taught in those courses has changed over time.
“The research on policy suggests that we need to look—research needs to look—at implementation to understand why policies might not be having as strong of an effect as we might like,” she said.
Good civic education develops skills such as deliberation, collaboration and public speaking. But achieving those outcomes requires better standards for civic education and better integration with other disciplines such as English/language arts, Kiesa said.
“Part of the challenge is…that there are major gaps in exposure and quality,” she said. “In our research, we have looked at whether or not, nationally, any young person is as likely as the next to be exposed to high-quality civic education in schools.”
Kiesa said her organization’s research has shown that college-bound students and students in Advanced Placement, or AP, classes are more likely to be exposed to high-quality civic education practices. In addition, she said, better civic education instruction is found in advantaged communities than low-income communities.
However, “there are some very exciting trends happening within civic education right now,” Kiesa said.
There has been a movement to create AP civics classes as “deeper” civics education, Kiesa said. Also, games about civics and simulated civic learning experiences are becoming more popular. Learning by taking civic action also has gained popularity.
“We believe strongly, after having studied this for 15 years, that there’s a need to focus on collaboration and innovation, which is something that state agencies and offices can facilitate,” she said.
Kiesa said innovation in civic education might include developing better state standards, supporting teachers who want to discuss current issues in classrooms or lowering the voting age to 17.
Marshall Croddy, president of the Constitutional Rights Foundation, further explored the challenges in improving civic education. He said low rates of knowledge about government have been the trend for a long time, but the rates are declining.
“We also know there are very low rates of trust in government,” he said. “They’ve been declining since the early ‘60s.”
Croddy said civic learning is needed across grade levels, and textbooks should cover state and local governments in more detail. He said state and local governments are not being covered as much as the federal government.
“And, ironically, that is where the greatest opportunities for participation are—in state and local government,” he said.
Adequate teacher professional development and curricula that supports best practices and methods is critical.
“The teacher is key,” Croddy said. “Outside of a parent, the teacher has the greatest capacity to influence a student’s development of pro-civics, pro-participation capacities and competencies. So, teachers hold the key. And we really have to give teachers the tools and the capacities to address the challenges that we’re facing.”
Visit the CSG Knowledge Center to view the complete webinar.
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