July | August 2017

by Elizabeth Whitehouse and Abbey Bowe
Without the knowledge needed to participate, American citizens are disengaging from the democratic process. According to data released by the U.S. Census Bureau, the United States ranks 28 out of 35 member nations of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, or OECD, in regard to voter turnout.
Education is one of democracy’s greatest tools and investing in a strong education for every citizen is the best vanguard against this decline in public engagement. Civic education stands at the core of what it takes to equip citizens with the knowledge and willingness to become community, state and national leaders. Without such civic fundamentals, the youth of today may not vote or run for public office tomorrow, and the future participation of citizens in America’s great democratic experiment is at risk. Unfortunately, the state of civic education is declining. The Nation’s Report Card released by the U.S. Department of Education in 2014 shows only 23 percent of eighth graders scored at or above proficient in civics.
States have the opportunity to renew their focus on civic education and civics through the Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA. Signed in to law in 2015, ESSA replaced the No Child Left Behind Act. ESSA emphasizes college and career readiness, accountability, scaling back assessments, increasing access to preschool and the important role state and local communities play in making their schools successful. ESSA federal funding acts as an incentive package for innovation in America’s school systems.
Of the 19 states and the District of Columbia that have sent in their state plans for peer review; 11 states and D.C. have included civics in their ESSA state plans.
When looking at examples from the ESSA state plans, New York showed a strong commitment to civic education with the creation of the College, Career and Civic Readiness Index in their ESSA state plan. The plan will focus on civic engagement as a part of a more holistic approach to accountability.
Looking ahead at how states can increase their resources and attention to civics, the National Center for Learning and Civic Engagement, or NCLCE, provides an in-depth analysis of ways that states can use ESSA state plans to provide a greater focus on civics through the ESSA: Mapping Opportunities for Civic Education report,
“There is significant opportunity to strengthen civic education under ESSA, leveraging civics’ intrinsic value as part of a well-rounded education and civics’ instrumental value to advance academic achievement and non-academic outcomes such as college and workforce readiness skills,” said Jan Brennan, project leader at the NCLCE.
Civic education in the United States should be a major concern for not only educators and policymakers, but for the nation as a whole. Weak civic education leads to more than a simple lack of knowledge. A report conducted by The Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, or CIRCLE, found that civically engaged students attained higher levels of education than their otherwise similar peers.
“CIRCLE is a national, nonpartisan applied research center focused on increasing, deepening and making more equitable young people’s opportunities for civic learning and engagement,” said Abby Kiesa, director of impact at CIRCLE. “CIRCLE has a long-time focus on school civic education, and CIRCLE’s website provides new research and research summaries on the topic.”
Kiesa served an advisor to the recently convened Civics Education Leadership Team jointly established by CSG and the National Center for Learning and Civic Engagement, where she shared ideas on civic engagement and learning strategies with the leadership team.
The knowledge and skills obtained through civic education are critical to participating in the democratic system. Our states and economy will be greatly impacted by the choice to invest—or not invest—in civic education. Civic education must become a priority for the sake of the next generation of Americans and, particularly, for those most vulnerable to having their voices lost within the political process.
Speaking on the importance of civics, California State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson said, “Civic education plays a critical role in preparing our youth to be active and informed community members, participate in our democracy, and make a difference in the world.”
Like in California and New York, there have been initiatives to improve civic education across the nation, but more support and greater awareness of its importance is needed. At least 40 states require a course in American government or civics, but many of these requirements lack strict quality standards or research-based curricula. The ESSA provides an opportunity for a greater emphasis on civics in accountability systems and funding as states build out their plans.
For more information about CIRCLE, visit civicyouth.org.