Origins of Civics Education in the U.S. 

 

Civics education is a crucial component of democracy. The connection between civics and society was a formative part of the U.S. constitutional democracy. Forms of textbooks and other civic education materials have been used in American schools since at least 1790, soon after institutions of education were established (Crittenden & Levine, 2018; McDevitt & Caton-Rosser, 2009). However, the history of civics education in the U.S. is intertwined with the United States’ educational system and society, both of which embody traditions of nationalism and cultural exclusion. Civics education in the 21st century faces distinct and complex challenges, many of which have root in the inequitable structures through which civics education is implemented (Jamieson, 2013). A critical look at why and how civics education has been developed and implemented in this country holds important lessons about how such education can be improved so that its benefits serve all students.

 

The Founding Fathers of the United States agreed that their vision of democracy required participants to be appropriately educated as citizens and all advocated for greater attention to civic education (Crittenden & Levine, 2018; Jamieson, 2013; Marquette & Mineshima, 2002). Thomas Jefferson dissented from the opinion that the purpose of civics education was to develop a national identity and asserted that education was the means for protecting individual rights and maintaining the power and rights of citizens (Crittenden & Levine, 2018). James Madison similarly believed that some civic education was essential for instilling a degree of virtue and civic engagement that would hold the government accountable to its citizens (Crittenden & Levine, 2018). However, their definition of who could be considered a full citizen was limited to white property-owning men, and that legacy of exclusion still holds power today (Crittenden & Levine, 2018; Love, 2019). Civic education that excludes certain identities and perspectives forms the foundation for a society and democracy that excludes diverse voices and votes in the democratic process.

 

Public and affordable civics education came to the United States in the 1830s when Horace Mann led the Common Schools Movement. Common schools aimed to educate all students “in common,” regardless of traits that would have otherwise excluded them from receiving an education, such as social status, gender, or religion (Crittenden & Levine, 2018). When Mann’s public schools were first formed, civics and morality were a central focus of education with the simple goal to create good citizens and good persons. This goal was mainly pursued through “teaching the basic mechanics of government and imbuing students with loyalty to America and her ideals” (Crittenden & Levine, 2018). The historic intention of civics education to develop students’ nationalist loyalty to American cultural ideals informs modern forms of U.S. civics education just as do the historic moral concepts of civic virtue. The substance of the morality education implemented involved “conformity to specific rules describing conduct inside and outside of school” and was heavily based on Protestant values at the expense of other value systems (Crittenden & Levine, 2018). 

 

These forms of civic learning rely on the insertion of culture into education that prevents students from bringing their own culture and curiosity to the learning process (Ladson-Billings, 1995; Pewewardy, 1993). In contrast to that traditionally employed model, in the late 1800s influential educator John Dewey philosophized that civics education could be thought of as pragmatic democratic education that would encourage student citizens to find personal interest in learning and ultimately “share in the interests of others” so that “divisions of race, class, and ethnicity would be worn down and transcended” (Crittenden & Levine, 2018; Dewey, 1897). This form of civics education is what keeps a democracy strong and just. The focus of learning within Dewey’s framework is centered on the students’ interests and experiences, and the application of theory is emphasized as a necessary component of any effective education (Dewey, 1904). Though Dewey’s work illuminated the essence of quality education that holds meaning for learners, mainstream models of civics education did not apply Dewey’s theories or philosophies in any sort of systemic or widespread way. Within educational structures defined by “cultures of domination [that] rely on the cultivation of fear as a way to ensure obedience,” any civics education practiced will serve to reinforce systems of domination (hooks, 2001, p. 93; Freire, 1970). Conditions of fear uphold structures of domination by constructing differences as threats and prevent movement towards Dewey’s vision of civics education that transcends differences and enables connections with others (hooks, 2001).

 

Within cultures of domination and inequitable social context, civics education can further subjugate students with non-dominant cultural identities through uncritical presentations of Eurocentric and nationalist curricula (Anzaldúa, 1987; Love, 2019). Sociocultural subjugation and exclusion can lead to the perception of different tiers of citizenship, specifically the continuum between “full citizenship” and “second-class citizenship” conceptualized by Rosaldo (1994). Within this framework, full citizenship is a state inhabited by citizens in “favorable material circumstances” who are able to “speak about well-being, thriving, dignity, and respect” when consulted about the idea of citizenship. Second-class citizenship is a state inhabited by citizens who lack the “material conditions that give people reasonable life chances” and speak about “feeling unsafe, violated, humiliated, and invisible” when consulted about the idea of citizenship (Rosaldo, 1994, p. 402). The state of second-class citizenship is informed by social structures of power, domination, and oppression that create and maintain an inequitable social order. The conditions of education are closely linked with social conditions within which students develop senses of self-esteem, agency, and citizenship, thus perpetuation of an inequitable social status quo within civics education prevents many students from becoming full citizens and educated participatory members of U.S. democracy (Hemphill & Blakely, 2015; Jamieson, 2013; Love, 2019). Civics education should serve as a site to interrogate and understand civic society, not to conform to it uncritically. 

 

Civics Education in the Era of Assimilation

 

Since the turn of the nineteenth century, the dominant form of formal civic education in the U.S. followed an assimilationist model that often reproduced and reinforced the marginalization and oppression of indigenous, Black, and immigrant students (Hemphill & Blakely, 2015; Love, 2019). The legacy of civics education has been shaped by the national reaction to the increase in average annual immigration to the U.S. beginning in 1850 (Jamieson, 2013; McDevitt & Caton-Rosser, 2009; Migration Policy Institute, 2019). In response to the steady influx of immigrant students in U.S. schools, public schools became sites for “preparing immigrant children” for American society, specifically by teaching them to conform to all dominant social, cultural, and linguistic societal norms (Crittenden & Levine, 2018; McDevitt & Caton-Rosser, 2009). This approach to civics education was characterized as “pressure cooker civic education” due to the overt intention to assimilate the influx of “alien” immigrants into the dominant Eurocentric culture, laws, and governmental structures (Quigley, 1999). This perspective on the American hegemony provides an important framework for understanding the nature of education, and specifically civics education, during the assimilationist era. The pressure cooker metaphor aligns with the historic conception of U.S. society as a melting pot, wherein assimilation is considered synonymous with conforming to the dominant culture. Critics of these ideologies and metaphors saw these attempts to alienate children from their native cultures through education as “homogenizing” at best and “cultural terrorism” at worst (Anzaldúa, 1987; McDevitt & Caton-Rosser, 2009).

 

The ideologies of American exceptionalism and Americanism characterize the legacy of civics education in the United States. Assimilationist goals that became normalized as part of the “pressure cooker” civics education era were closely linked with these intertwined ideologies. American exceptionalism considers the U.S. and its history to be distinct from and superior to all other nations and their histories. Some theories of American exceptionalism revolve around the ideal of democracy, interpreting President Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address as the uniquely American responsibility to spread democracy worldwide (Cheney & Cheney, 2015). Other theories, however, assert that American exceptionalism is based on the four pillars of common law, virtue and morality as defined by Protestant Christianty, free-market capitalism , and the sanctity of private property (Schweikart & Dougherty, 2012). These approaches to American exceptionalism, though distinct, have in common the assumption that American democracy is fixed and unevolving: a perfected political practice that is worth imposing on other societies. In general terms, Americanism aims to unify a collective American identity around a collective American ideology. However, the concept of Americanism can be defined as more than simply a unified sense of cultural identity, but rather: “an articulation of the nation’s rightful place in the world, a set of traditions, a political language, and a cultural style imbued with political meaning” (Kazin & McCartin, 2006). The political meaning that underlies these concepts implies that “America” is superior to other nations, its history superior to other histories, its culture superior to other cultures. A lack of curiosity about other nations, histories, or cultures is characteristic of both of these approaches. This approach was the dominant status quo for civics education in the U.S. for over a century.

 

Civics Education in the Age of Accountability

 

By the mid-twentieth century, U.S. civics education standards expanded to require students in high schools to take three separate civics classes: “Civics,” “Problems of Democracy,” and “U.S. Government.” Despite this requirement, studies from the 1940s, 50s, and 60s found that schools largely failed as “laboratories of democracy” (McDevitt & Caton-Rosser, 2009). This was due in large part to the popularity of the “banking approach” to education, within which teachers do not expand beyond transmission of textbook information through rote learning (Freire, 1970; McDevitt & Caton-Rosser, 2009). The banking method of teaching became normalized in the U.S. in 1965 when the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) introduced the system of granting federal aid to schools based on standardized test results. The ESEA was originally part of Lyndon B. Johnson’s “War on Poverty” and has been reauthorized every four to six years since its inception (Rudalevige, 2006). The ideology of the ESEA has arguably affected education more than any other federal legislation by establishing the status quo of standardization, measurable results, and accountability (Gilbert, 2018; Peterson & West, 2003). Wiley and Wright (2004) identify this shift in educational policy as the “age of accountability,” characterized by high-stakes testing that determines how much funding a school will receive from the government. As a result of this circumstance, the focus of education in the U.S. narrowed into preparing students as good test-takers rather than as active citizens. An ongoing effect of the normalization of high-stakes testing is the prioritization of the banking method of education, which became the dominant teaching method as a means of preparing students to succeed on standardized tests. 

 

Educational policy and culture became more aligned with conservative ideology in the 1980s when U.S. society as a whole fell under conservative power (Kenyon, 1995). With the increase in globalization came global comparisons of education and a landmark critique of U.S. public schools in the 1983 “Nation at Risk” report, which was commissioned by Republican president Ronald Reagan (National Commission on Excellence in Education, 1983). Partly in response to globalization and international competition, national education began to be framed as a competition. “Winning the brain race” of international education and increasing the global ranking of the U.S. became the goals of the education system rather than supporting its students or preparing them as citizens in a democracy (Woodring, 1989). Carnoy (2014) argues that globalization has impacted education worldwide with a shift towards market society ideology, theorizing that the focus of education shifted away from the development of citizens towards the development of economic workers. This idea can be extended to hypothesize that the focus on education shifted away from the development of engaged citizens and towards the development of representative citizens. The difference exists in the way individuals are made to feel about their citizenship, whether it is unconditional or whether it is contingent on adequate performance and productivity. The latter construction of citizenship is evident in the developments in the U.S. educational system that trend towards accountability and high-stakes testing. 

 

The shift in educational policy and culture in the 1980s narrowed the space within which any form of civics education could be taught. Giroux (2008) argues that the neoliberal forces of commercialization, privatization, and market consideration have undermined civic and critical learning. This argument explains the correlated trajectory of the neoliberalization of education with the erosion of effective civics education. As high-stakes testing culture became normalized, it became more difficult for teachers and local districts to develop or implement any formalized critical or participatory civics education. Jamieson (2013) contends that attempts by the Bush administration in 1989 to establish national standards for education may have undermined efforts towards civics education because, in response to those national standards, most states increased the required learning material without developing clear civics standards that emphasized democratic engagement. An analysis of national standards in 2003 found that civics education most often consisted simply of a list of people, events and dates to be memorized and failed to develop civic competence (Jamieson, 2013). A rote banking approach to education has been posited as an ineffective learning strategy for all subjects as it fails to scaffold students in expanding their own potentials and knowledge (Freire, 1970; Vygotsky 1978). This approach is considered especially ineffective for a civics education with the express purpose to prepare engaged citizens for active participation in society.

 

In 1998, the National Center for Education Statistics conducted the very first National Assessment of Educational Progress on United States Civics Education. The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) is the only national measure of student knowledge and proficiency in academic subjects. The NAEP is also known as “The Nation’s Report Card” and is administered biannually to a representative sample of students in the U.S. to measure “what students know and can do” (NCES, 2020). The results of the 1998 NAEP Civics Assessment were disappointing, with an average score for 4th, 8th and 12th graders at only 150 out of 300. In the two decades since that inaugural exam, the U.S. school population has failed to raise its civics score, with the 2018 NAEP Civics results revealing no significant change compared to 1998 (NCES, 2018). In 2010, the NAEP revealed that fewer than half of all eighth graders in the United States knew the purpose of the Bill of Rights (NCES, 2010). In 2018, the NAEP Civics Achievement-Level results show that each region of the country has below 25% of 8th grade students scoring as NAEP civics proficient, indicating that there is a pervasive issue with civics education in the entire country, even as conventionally defined by the NAEP civics assessment.

 

The effects of accountability policies continued to contribute to the degradation of civics education in the United States into the twenty-first century. In 2001, President George W. Bush continued in Reagan’s neoliberal footsteps with educational reform that focused on individuality, competition, and standardization in the name of accountability. The No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Policy was implemented as a revitalization and continuation of the ESEA. The competitive goals and ideologies of the Reagan era persisted in successive reauthorizations of the ESEA and especially in the enactment of No Child Left Behind. Without empirical evidence on the effectiveness of accountability, Secretary of Education Rod Paige offered the aphorism of “keeping score to win a game” as sufficient reason to proceed with accountability policies (Rudalevige, 2006). At the core of NCLB were the same measures of accountability that required schools to prove by quantitative measurements that they qualify for federal funding. As local school sites could only qualify for federal funding if their scores were high enough on the standardized tests and evaluations, schools across the nation shifted their focus to outcomes, testing, and standardized curricula entirely focused on literacy and numeracy (Peterson & West, 2003; U.S. Department of Education, 2015). This shift in focus had an effect on the amount of time and attention that could be dedicated to forms of education that cannot be quantitatively proven. In zero-sum contexts such as curricula and classroom time, a “crowding-out” effect took place as literacy and numeracy displaced other forms of education (Hansen, Levesque, Valant, & Quintero, 2018). The 2018 Brown Center Report on American Education found that NCLB policies of both the Clinton and Bush Administrations forced educators to put more emphasis on math and reading at the expense of social studies and civics education (Hansen, Levesque, Valant, & Quintero, 2018).

 

Though the ESEA and NCLB policies were framed as educational equalizers that would make it easier for marginalized students to be included, the reality is that low performing schools and schools that enrolled a higher percentage of disadvantaged students were disproportionately negatively affected (Gilbert, 2018; Love, 2019). The social structures of oppression and segregation were left unaddressed within these policies, which were implemented with the assumption that schools themselves would take care of the students whom the system of high-stakes testing neglected, specifically dark and working-class students (Love, 2019). Under these conditions, all local actors in vulnerable districts – students, teachers, and administrators – are aware and afraid of what happens if they don’t produce a qualifying score for the accountability measures: the closure of the school. The multifaceted legacy of these educational policies is what Love (2019) identifies as the “educational survival complex.” Compounding these immediate conditions is the socioeconomic reality that students from marginalized communities are conditioned to approach education as a matter of survival, as the only way to gain social mobility and evade poverty or incarceration (Love, 2019). That consuming and consistent state of fear characterizes the educational survival complex on the personal, local, and institutional level. States of fear and hopelessness within school sites often prevent students from learning in the meaningful and personal ways that lead to the development of active and engaged citizens (Ginwright, 2016).  

 

Since the introduction of the ESEA in 1965, these landmark educational policies have consistently lacked a focus on addressing the problem of inequitable access to education and systemic neglect of marginalized students and schools. The social, economic, and political ramifications of these laws are centered on the continued disenfranchisement of students and citizens with marginalized social positions. Love (2019) argues that within the U.S. public school system, marginalized students “no longer learn how to be informed and active citizens” because “character education” has largely taken the place of civics education (p. 70). As the effects of desegregation and school closures displaced marginalized students to distant school districts without federal or local funding for transportation, character education became popular within the integrated public schools as a derivative of civics education (Love, 2019). Suissa (2015) describes the rise of character education as the displacement of political education. When character education takes the place of comprehensive civics education, it displaces political education because its language and aims only interact with the political sphere in a superficial sense (Suissa, 2015). Love (2019) extends this idea to explicate the harm induced by character education that reinforces inequitable status quo while encouraging moral development, naming character education as anti-Black because its dominant conceptualizations of character values are rooted in the interconnected hegemony of the white supremacist capitalist patriarchy (hooks, 1984). 

 

In 2015, The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) took the place of No Child Left Behind as national educational policy. The ESSA reauthorized many of the policies and structures of NCLB and the original ESEA with slight adjustments to the preceding laws. Distinct from those previous policies, the ESSA aims to grant states more flexibility with accountability and allow states more freedom in educational practices with more focus on areas separate from English and math (Hansen, Levesque, Valant, & Quintero, 2018). The authors of the 2018 Brown Center Report on American Education identify the opportunity for states to follow the ESSA’s suggestion to emphasize two measures that are considered conducive to civic engagement: socio-emotional learning and school climate  (Hansen, Levesque, Valant, & Quintero, 2018). However, the authors also note that measures of school and student achievement are still largely based on standardized math and English assessments and that civics education in the U.S. is not demonstrably high-quality. The authors directly address the issue of civics education and advocate for greater commitment to high-quality civics education throughout the nation: “Education policy and practice in the United States should place greater emphasis on schools’ role in supporting and strengthening American democracy through how it educates its students” (Hansen, Levesque, Valant, & Quintero, 2018, p. 2).

 

Civics Education in the Common Core State Standards

 

The question of national state standards was first directly confronted in 2009, when the Common Core State Standards Initiative was founded by the Council of Chief State School Officers in collaboration with the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices. These educational standards were developed with input from state leaders, teachers, parents, school administrators, and national experts in education and curriculum development. The standards are divided into two sections, English Language Arts/Literacy and Mathematics, and are intended to supplement, not supersede, statewide content standards in these subject areas (Council of Chief School Officers, 2010). The College and Career Readiness (CCR) Anchor Standards form the foundation of the Common Core State Standards as explicit learning outcomes and goals that prepare students to succeed in college and career. The absence of a direct focus on citizenship or civics in the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) resonates with the decade-old observation that the lack of “sustained and systematic” attention to civics education in K-12 curriculum “stems in part from the assumption that the knowledge and skills citizens need emerge as by-products of the study of other disciplines or as an outcome of the process of schooling itself” (Quigley, 1999). This assumption seems embodied in the limited inclusion of the subject of civics and government within the original CCSS. 

 

Social studies and civics education are intertwined by nature, so certain themes and concepts of civics education are covered in the standards. However, the term “civics” is absent from the Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts and Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects. The idea of citizenship is specified once in the introduction to the standards, which seem to conceptualize the idea of literacy as akin to critical civic consciousness. The connections between “21st century skills” and civic readiness are relevant and visible, especially in the discussion of engaged and critical media literacy; in a way, these literacy standards move towards the idea of high-quality civics education without actually naming it. 

As a natural outgrowth of meeting the charge to define college and career readiness, the Standards also lay out a vision of what it means to be a literate person in the twenty-first century. Indeed, the skills and understandings students are expected to demonstrate have wide applicability outside the classroom or workplace. Students who meet the Standards readily undertake the close, attentive reading that is at the heart of understanding and enjoying complex works of literature. They habitually perform the critical reading necessary to pick carefully through the staggering amount of information available today in print and digitally. They actively seek the wide, deep, and thoughtful engagement with high-quality literary and informational texts that builds knowledge, enlarges experience, and broadens worldviews. They reflexively demonstrate the cogent reasoning and use of evidence that is essential to both private deliberation and responsible citizenship in a democratic republic. In short, students who meet the Standards develop the skills in reading, writing, speaking, and listening that are the foundation for any creative and purposeful expression in language. 

The indication that these developed literacy skills will translate smoothly to “responsible citizenship in a democratic republic” is an assumption to be challenged. Effective transfers of learning are unlikely to occur organically without explicit instruction and practice on how to apply knowledge to distinct situations (Dewey, 1904; Lave, 1988). Within this pragmatic framework of theory to practice, a more direct approach to civics education is needed to adequately prepare students to apply classroom learning to societal circumstances.

 

In an official consensus recommendation to Congress, over two dozen education organizations argue for the inclusion of a third “C” in the CCR Anchor Standards: citizenship (ASCD, 2012). The coalition behind the Consensus Recommendations for College, Career, and Citizenship Readiness (CCCR) represent the valid observation that civics and citizenship education were underfunded and undervalued in the U.S. education system and the original Common Core standards. In 2013, the Innovation Lab Network put forth a State Framework for College, Career, and Citizenship Readiness that outlines the Knowledge, Skills, and Dispositions that education systems can center to prepare all students for citizenship, as well as postsecondary learning and work (Council of Chief State School Officers, 2013). The Innovation Lab Network (ILN) is facilitated by the Council of Chief State School Officers and made up of educational leaders from multiple states who collaborate to transform the national educational system to better support students as citizens of democracy. The identified first step of this transformation is the creation of the shared framework for understanding the elements of “college, career, and citizenship readiness (CCCR) that will serve as a compass for state-to-local actions” (Council of Chief State School Officers, 2013, p.2). The definitional elements of the CCCR framework are described in the Trends in Civics Education section and were officially accepted by ILN chief state school officers in 2012, who committed to adopt that shared model of college and career readiness in their own states as means of beginning the reorientation of state and federal educational systems. 

 

The Knowledge, Skills, and Dispositions framework identifies one of the foundational underlying assumptions of the initiative to be that citizenship readiness is a fundamental mission of public schools. The student-centered diction of this framework presents an encouraging ideal of civic learning that is clarified thoroughly within the document and summarized in the Appendix. The Council of Chief State School Officers (2013) identify public schools as crucial sites of civic learning and describe that learning as “understandings about the responsibility to care for one another, to contribute to the community, to behave ethically, and to use the knowledge and capacities they are developing to do good” (p. 12). This conceptualization of civic education is paired with the assertion that “radical changes in current beliefs, policy, practice and structure” are necessary to ensure high-quality education for all young people regardless of background (Council of Chief State School Officers, 2013, p. 11). This is an important observation that must be addressed in tandem with student-centered developments to civic education curricula to move towards a comprehensive education that effectively prepares all students for lifelong success and engaged citizenship.

 

The State Framework for College, Career, and Citizenship Readiness is similar to the Common Core State Standards in that it provides recommendations for content that could be implemented and taught at the state level. The implementation of these standards, including pedagogy, curricula, and materials used to support teachers, is led exclusively at the state and district levels (Council of Chief School Officers, 2010). These factors of implementation are important and influential when considering the effectiveness of the civics education that is actually delivered to students. If citizenship readiness is the “fundamental mission of public schools,” the question remains as to how these schools can prepare “America’s youth to be contributing members of the larger society” if civics education content is not required to be taught (Council of Chief State School Officers, 2013, p. 12). The Council of Chief State School Officers (2013) assert that “civic learning or literacy is essential if students are to develop capacity to reflect on and respond to challenges in the world around them” and put forth the framework that includes citizenship readiness in the greater concept of how schools should prepare students for life in society (p. 12). Without widespread and consistent implementation, these national standards cannot reach all students, and, without conscious and critical presentation of the material, these content standards could serve to reinforce dominant social structures. This framework provides an excellent foundation for civic education programs that serves those states who choose to incorporate it into the statewide curricula and standards. 

 

Conclusion

 

Civics education should be an integral part of public education without serving to reinforce social status quo or inequitable structures of power and influence. The right to a high-quality civics education stands to reason as necessary for a healthy and evolving democracy. Civics education could be a way to equitably distribute knowledge regarding civic engagement, rather than a means of further stratifying the ways in which young citizens are able to participate in society. The history of civics education in the United States reveals a lack of conscious and critical approaches to educating young citizens; most civics education in the U.S. is politically charged or standardized beyond meaning relevant to learners. Frameworks for high-quality civics education have been set forth by leading scholars and organizations in the field, but without national implementation of these frameworks, many student citizens are not receiving an effective or adequate civics education. The function of civics education to prepare young people for active citizenship in a constitutional democracy is left unfulfilled without national dedication to high-quality civics education for all. 

 

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