Recent Policy Trends
In the past decade, there has been movement to improve civics education nationwide. The “USA Civics Act of 2020: Understanding and Studying American Civics” was first proposed to the 116th Congress in 2019 (H.R.5810, 2019-2020). This bill would authorize the Department of Education to grant institutions of higher education funds specifically allocated to civic education. The stated intention of these specified academic programs is to “promote American political thought and history; the history, achievements, and impact of American representative democracy and constitutional democracies globally; and the means of participation in political and civic life” (H.R.5810, 2019-2020). This bill’s existence is encouraging in the attention it draws to the lack of effective civics education in the country and its introduction of tangible actions towards remedying that lack. This bill places importance on participation in political and civic life and targets the involvement of young adults in matters of civic engagement and learning. However, the grants awarded through this act are currently “focused on traditional American history and the history and achievements of Western civilization,” and this diction seems to resonate with the ideologies of Americanism and American exceptionalism (H.R.5810, 2019-2020). Though the suggestion of funding for civics education is important in any level of education, this bill is relevant only to institutions of higher education, not to elementary or secondary sites of education. The focus on developing civic knowledge at the undergraduate level could imply that civics education at the elementary and secondary levels have not been sufficient to educate engaged citizens. It is relevant to pursue civics education at the undergraduate and graduate levels of education, but a foundation in civic knowledge should be a necessary precursor to higher civics education. Regardless, the allocation of funds to civics education for young adults is an important step towards institutionalizing high-quality civics education.
The “Civics Learning Act of 2019” proposes meaningful solutions to the lack of effective civics education in the earlier years of public education (Annenberg Public Policy Center, 2019). The motivations for the bill are named by Congress: “the dearth of civics lessons available to students across the United States has helped to foster a political climate that is deeply partisan and divided” and “a lack of knowledge on the basics of the structure of our democratic republic creates an increasingly ill-prepared electorate which overtime [sic] has, and will continue to, contribute to a weakened democracy” (Annenberg Public Policy Center, 2019). The connection between the political climate and the character of civics education is important to comprehend, as civics education will always in some way reflect the character of the society in which it is being taught. A weakened democracy and ineffective civics education are in cyclical dialogue with each other, each informing the further degradation or improvement of the other. In response to these observations, the “Civics Learning Act of 2019” amends the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 to authorize expanded funding for K-12 civics education that includes:
before, during, and after-school and extracurricular activities, activities that include service learning and community service projects that are linked to school curriculum, activities that encourage and support student participation in school governance, and online and video game-based learning. (H.R.849, 2019-2020)
The allocation of funding to hands-on learning, service learning, and participatory learning through this bill is an encouraging step in the direction of the type of experiential learning that is necessary for effective civics education. The attention given to innovation in civics learning is crucial because “innovative youth programs” are “a method that Plato, Erasmus, Rousseau, Dewey, and others found generative [for civics education] in earlier times” and remain a key generator of effective civics education in modern times (Levine & Higgins-D’Alessandro, 2010). Under the “Civics Learning Act of 2019,” the Department of Education must also invest a percentage of the civics learning grant funds to diverse organizations that serve students at the elementary and secondary levels (H.R.849, 2019-2020). The involvement of community-based civic learning organizations acknowledges the importance of community partnership in experiential civics education and represents an innovative approach to civics education that transgresses from traditional classroom-based models. Overall, the investment of grant money into funding these participatory approaches to civics education demonstrates a commitment to serving student learners as developing citizens. The passing of this bill would be an important step in providing comprehensive civics education to students in U.S. public schools, though further steps must be taken to combat the systemic inequity in educational quality and accessibility (Council of Chief State School Officers, 2013).
The American Civics Act addresses the expectation that all students should be able to demonstrate proficiency in civics education before graduating high school. Arizona was the first state to pass the American Civics Act, though the initiative could be enacted in any state. The Arizona Legislature passed the American Civics Act in 2015 and it went into effect two years later, requiring all students to pass a basic civics test before graduating (Ducey, 2017). In 2018, the Arizona Legislature also passed a Senate Bill that has the purpose of further promoting civics education through the creation of the American Civics Education Pilot program for high school (S.B.1444, 2018). The legal expectation in Arizona is that all high school students take one semester of a civics course and complete a basic civics assessment as a graduation requirement (H.B. 2064., 2015). The required assessment is identical to the naturalization test administered by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) and students are required to correctly answer at least 60 of the 100 questions. The ratio of 6 to 10 is the same threshold for passing the naturalization interview required by the USCIS to become a citizen. The American Civics Act permits students to retake the civics test as many times as necessary to pass, and local district boards have the power to decide the administration of the assessment (H.B. 2064., 2015). Questions of the validity and relevance of the naturalization test as means of assessing civic readiness are left unaddressed. Certainly, it follows the trend of prioritizing standardization and quantitative approaches to assessment over qualitative or participatory approaches to evaluation.
On the statewide level, Colorado has demonstrated a legal commitment to civic education. In 2004, Colorado passed Title 22, a statute that ensures students of the state the right to an education regarding the history, culture, and civil government of the state of Colorado and the United States. This statute is a work in development, with many revisions since its introduction. The most recent revision of the text of Title 22 states:
The history and civil government of the United States and of the state of Colorado, which includes the history, culture, and social contributions of minorities, including, but not limited to, American Indians, Latinos, African Americans, and Asian Americans, the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender individuals within these minority groups, and the intersectionality of significant social and cultural features within these communities, and the contributions and persecution of religious minorities, must be taught in all the public schools of the state. (Colo. Rev. Stat. § 22-1-104, 2004)
The recognition of the contributions of diverse and intersectional minority groups is a transgressive step in the practice of inclusive civics education. The statute requires students to complete a course on the civil government of the United States and the state of Colorado as a condition of high school graduation (Colo. Rev. Stat. § 22-1-104, 2004). Title 22 secures state-funded support for contemporary and effective civics education, requiring the department of education to support local districts in “developing and promoting programs for elementary and secondary students that address the state model content standards for civics and promote best practices in civic education” (Colo. Rev. Stat. § 22-1-104, 2004). This assistance offered to local districts throughout the state is funded through the “state education fund created in section 17(4) of article IX of the state constitution” (Colo. Rev. Stat. § 22-1-104, 2004). The allocation of state funds to ensure quality contemporary civics education in all public schools is a notable demonstration of dedication to civic education by the state of Colorado.
In Rhode Island, a grassroots movement led by students and families sought to establish a constitutional right to education effective in preparing students to fully participate as citizens in a democracy. This movement and court case, Cook v. Raimondo, represents the necessity to guarantee students access to the constitutional rights to understandings of economic, social, and political systems sufficient to inform educated civic choices and engaged participation in civic activities (Teachers College, 2020). Though Judge Smith ruled against this petition in the U.S. District Court for Rhode Island because he was not able to legally prove that civics education should be a Constitutional right, the text of his ruling encourages further pursuit of the ensured right to civics education. In the decision for Cook v. Raimondo, Judge Smith included the opinion that there “should be some other remedy for the nation’s education system, which, in his view, is imperiling the future of American democracy” (Teachers College, 2020). This case and Judge Smith’s decision have effectively drawn attention to the democratic necessity for civics education to be guaranteed as a right to all public school students.
This case, now named Cook v. Mckee, brought to light the reality that nowhere in The Constitution is the right to civics education guaranteed and that without civics education for its students, American democracy might indeed perish from the earth (Teachers College, 2020). This points to the dynamic and processual nature of democracy and civics education; both practices must evolve to best serve the evolving society. In 2022, this case reached a settlement between both sides that agreed to strengthen the civic education practices in Rhode Island. To better prepare students as capable and involved citizens, the Rhode Island Department of Education is establishing a task force including student plaintiffs and their counsels. In return for their position as state advisors on civic education, the plaintiffs agreed to withdraw the petition to take Cook v. Mckee to the Supreme Court. The inclusion of students in the task force for improving civic education is meaningful in that it officially values the ideas of those who are on the receiving end of civics education and whose positionality entails insights that others might not be capable of producing. This could mark the beginning of a potential national movement to legally revitalize civics education as a crucial and undeniable part of public education.
Another recent legislative trend that took hold in 2021 and 2022 is the effort to restrict or completely ban the teaching of certain topics and texts. For example, the national debate over the inclusion of Critical Race Theory (CRT) in education led to numerous proposed and passed legislative bans to using the acclaimed legal theory to inform educational practice on the statewide level. Critical Race Theory directly relates to questions of high-quality civics education as an exemplar of how to engage students in current events and controversial issues. By the end of July, 2021, twenty six states had proposed banning CRT from being incorporated in any nuance in public schools (Education Week, 2021). These new bills were all proposed by Republican legislators and target the flexibility of how teachers can discuss matters of equality, justice, and interlocking systems of oppression (Education Week, 2021). Regulating the way history and society are discussed in the classroom is an extremely contentious political choice, as education and institutions of learning are highly politicized by nature and can serve as reinforcement for unjust social structures through the teaching of silence and compliance (Freire, 1970). The choice to maintain the status quo validates systems and structures that are centuries old and may no longer reflect modern democracy or reality. Targeting CRT in the educational field can serve to uphold white supremacy by shaping what is shared in the classroom and by erasing CRT from educational policy, which should function to acknowledge and respond to structures and effects of institutionalized racism that are upheld within the schooling system (NPR, 2021).
Similarly, bans on books overtly limit the potential for social change in order to maintain an oppressive and unjust status quo. To ban books is to erase certain histories and perspectives from the publicly accessible curriculum. The American Library Association has been collecting data on banned books since 1990 and compiling lists of the most challenged books and most frequently banned books in the nation (American Library Association, 2021). According to their data, a surge in 2021 established a new high point for overt attempts to ban books from realms of public education (Harris & Alter, 2022). The majority of targeted books are about marginalized people and cultures, specifically Black and LGBTQIA+ identities (American Library Association, 2021; Harris & Alter, 2022). The attempts to ban books translates into attempts to bar certain identities, cultures, and consequently students, from full membership in the classroom community and thus in the greater society. The exclusion and marginalization of students, who are all emergent citizens, is an active obstacle to effective civic education that validates each civic participant as a full member of our society. Students should have access to diverse perspectives and truths to develop their own critical lens through which they can engage and participate as active citizens.
The data on the content of banned books aligns with the recent movement to prevent discussion of LGBTQIA+ identities within the realm of public education. This legal movement to restrict rights for LGBTQ youth was first established in Florida through the creation and signing of a bill that is colloquially referred to as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, which bans classroom instruction about sexual orientation or gender identity during the early elementary years and restricts discussion during the later elementary years (Diaz, 2022). The barring of LGBTQIA+ identities doesn’t simply limit the introduction of these concepts in the classroom but effectively prevents students from discussing their own lives or identities. Florida is not the only state considering the implementation of this sort of bill; as of April 2022 twelve additional states have proposed bills relating to imposing limitations and prohibitions on the topics of sexual orientation and gender identity (Jones & Franklin, 2022). The exclusion of these identities from the educational realm marginalizes students who are not cishetero or who have close relationships with non-cishetero people in their lives. Civic education regarding U.S. democracy should acknowledge the historical exclusion of marginalized groups from full civic participation in order to move towards inclusive democracy. Civic education will never move towards this goal if students are limited in their civic participation through the banning of topics that are directly relevant to civic justice and the full membership of all citizens in our society.
Recent Pedagogical Trends
Civics education by nature involves learning about and interacting with the personal and political realms of society. These kinds of educational interactions are especially potent sites for learning when approached through personal inquiry and critical investigation. Recent pedagogy consistently highlights the need for pragmatic and experiential learning practices for effective and high-quality civic education. The 2018 Brown Center Report on American Education synthesizes modern scholarship to identify the ten proven practices for high-quality civics education as a framework for analyzing state standards. Emphasis is placed on the fact that “interactive and participatory practices are core components of a high-quality civics education” (Hansen, Levesque, Valant, & Quintero, 2018, p. 17). The ten proven practices are an evolution of an original six learning strategies that scholars and organizations confirmed as best practices for civics education; all of the proven practices are essential aspects of effective civics education.
The first six strategic practices for high-quality civics education were identified in 2002 through collaborative empirical research conducted by the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE). In 2011, further empirical research presented in the Guardian of Democracy: The Civic Mission of Schools report strengthened the original strategies identified in 2002 to refine those “promising approaches” to become “proven practices” (Carnegie Corporation, and Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, 2011). These original proven practices for effective civic education are as follows:
- Classroom instruction in government, history, law, economics, and democracy
- Discussion of current events and controversial issues
- Service-learning linked to the formal curriculum and classroom instruction
- Extracurricular activities
- Student participation in school governance
- Simulations of democratic processes and procedures such as mock trials, mock congressional hearings, debates, and other participatory activities
Five of these six proven practices are directly dependent on student participation. The first strategy represents the bureaucratic orientation towards civic education, revealing that it is beneficial to have an element of the bureaucratic-orientation in the content of civic learning. However, as a whole these six strategies imply that it is necessary to follow bureaucratically- oriented instruction by engaging students in hands-on application of the instructional content. The five strategies that follow the first practice of didactic instruction all require active engagement from students, embodying a participatory approach to civic education that affirms the importance of taking civics education further than the traditional classroom learning format.
The development of these proven practices (PPs) reflects the same commitment to pragmatism. In 2017, Levine and Kawashima-Ginsberg (2017) elaborated on the original six PPs to create a more comprehensive vision of best practices for high-quality civic education. This development to the proven practices emphasizes the importance of the original six while compounding the framework with four additional educational practices. The complete list of ten PPs is presented by the authors of the 2018 Brown Center Report on American Education:
- Classroom instruction in civics, government, history, law, economics, and geography
- Discussion of current events
- Service learning
- Extracurricular activities
- Student participation in school governance
- Simulations of democratic processes and procedures
- News media literacy
- Action civics
- Social-emotional learning (SEL)
- School climate reform
The synthesis of these ten practices would create an ideal academic environment for civic learning. Essential to this vision is the final four practices, which highlight the gravity of impact that society has on school climate and student experience. These additional four practices expand the conceptualization of civics education past classroom-confined learning to include the character of the school site and local community. Students should be members of their school communities as practice for functioning as citizens of society. Imperatives along this line are described by Levine and Kawashima-Ginsberg (2017) as essential to the function and implementation of the first six proven practices. These authors further emphasize the importance of simulating democratic and civic engagement so that students may gain pragmatic experience with questions of civic agency and individual deliberation.
The proven practices framework in the 2018 Brown Center Report on American Education is still a collaborative work in progress that the authors acknowledge to be ongoing and incomplete. Utilizing the framework in its current state, Hansen, Levesque, Valant, & Quintero (2018) identify a triad of goals for civic education divided into the three realms of civic knowledge, civic skills, and civic dispositions. This framework asserts a sense of balance and connection within civics education pedagogy that shares focus among the three core learning outcomes. The realm of civic knowledge is defined as an understanding of governmental structures, processes, and relevant knowledge and concepts. The necessary civic skills to develop are described as “abilities that enable students to participate in a democracy as responsible citizens” (Hansen, Levesque, Valant, & Quintero, 2018, p. 16). Lastly, the idea of civic dispositions is identified by attitudes considered important for democracy, such as a sense of civic duty or a concern for the welfare of others. In tandem, these three imperatives should unite to equip students with sufficient agency and understanding to act as citizens within democracy. The identification of these three realms as separate but balanced components of a comprehensive civics education is important for moving toward participatory civic learning that addresses civic engagement at every level of society.
The question of developing competent and responsible citizens through education is academically addressed through the College, Career, and Civic Life (C3) Framework for Social Studies State Standards. The C3 framework, subtitled as Guidance for Enhancing the Rigor of K-12 Civics, Economics, Geography, and History, was created through a collaboration between social studies specialists from different parts of the United States. The development of the frameworks took place under the direction of the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSO) until the project was transferred to the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS). One of the three stated objectives of the C3 Framework is to “build critical thinking, problem solving, and participatory skills to become engaged citizens,” explicitly addressing the question of civics education within the larger discipline of social studies (NCSS, 2013). The C3 framework states the intention to incorporate and link the four major disciplines of civics, economics, geography, and history within social studies frameworks. The National Council for the Social Studies identifies five guiding principles about high quality social studies education that drive the C3 framework:
- Social studies prepares the nation’s young people for college, careers, and civic life.
- Inquiry is at the heart of social studies.
- Social studies involves interdisciplinary applications and welcomes integration of the arts and humanities.
- Social studies is composed of deep and enduring understandings, concepts, and skills from the disciplines. Social studies emphasizes skills and practices as preparation for democratic decision-making.
- Social studies education should have direct and explicit connections to the Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts.
The commitment to preparing students for civic life and democratic decision-making through inquiry reveals a modern understanding of civics education as intertwined with the discipline of social studies that investigates the processes and realities of civic life.
The NCSS keeps the C3 framework up to date and accessible on the National Council for the Social Studies website. On their website, the NCSS justifies the need for the C3 framework by citing the the abundant research that indicates how “fewer and fewer young people, particularly students of color and students in poverty, are receiving a high quality social studies education, despite the central role of social studies in preparing students for the responsibilities of citizenship.” The connection between responsible citizenship and democracy is emphasized, and the expectations of active and responsible citizens are clearly stated: “Active and responsible citizens are able to identify and analyze public problems, deliberate with other people about how to define and address issues, take constructive action together, reflect on their actions, create and sustain groups, and influence institutions both large and small. They vote, serve on juries when called, follow the news and current events, and participate in voluntary groups and efforts” (NCSS, 2013). The intention of the C3 framework is to teach students to be able to act as citizens in those ways identified through the application of this general framework. The C3 framework acts as a foundation for authors of state standards by identifying general foundational concepts and disciplinary skills without actually specifying topics. In tandem with guides to specific topics and pedagogy, the C3 framework is an important step towards creating accessible and high-quality state standards for civics education.
One direct complement to the C3 framework is the Educating for American Democracy Roadmap, which envisions an education system that has civics and history integrated within the greater curriculum (Educating for American Democracy, 2021). Both of these frameworks are united in the pedagogical philosophy that the inquiry process is key to developing knowledge and understanding. The Educating for American Democracy (EAD) initiative was proposed in 2019 as a means to organize collaborative efforts towards creating excellent history and civics education for all students. The EAD initiative was led by myriad professionals and stakeholders in the field of education who collaborated to create accessible and relevant frameworks for teaching and integrating the academic realms of civics and history effectively. Over three hundred diverse participants comprise this national network, including educators, practitioners, and students themselves. This coalition effectively represents a range of perspectives, experiences, and expertise that are united in the pursuit of quality history and civics education. The consensus reached by this diverse coalition represents an approach to high-quality civics education that should be accessible to individuals of all backgrounds and ideologies.
The essential product of the initiative is the EAD Roadmap, an interactive guiding resource for educators and learners that includes comprehensive learning guides with an inquiry framework. Neither a set of standards nor a full curriculum, the Roadmap exists to recommend approaches to learning about history and civics that synthesize the two subjects in engaging and inspiring ways. The recommended learning approaches for high-quality civics education are part of the larger inquiry process, which is exemplified by student-led research, analyses, and informed action. The recommended delivery for high-quality civics education is defined as “excellence in teaching of civic knowledge, civic skills, and civic dispositions,” which can be developed through study of the EAD Roadmap and the practice of creating and implementing an individualized Civic Learning Plan (Educating for American Democracy, 2021). The goal of excellent civics education is made accessible through clear guidelines on developing and utilizing effective pedagogy to move towards meaningful and evolving civic learning. The Roadmap includes a Pedagogy Companion that details pedagogical principles and practices of effective civic and history education to aid educators in implementing effective civic education. Both the Roadmap and the Pedagogy Companion center on six best practices for effective pedagogy that addresses the core question of how students can understand and participate in constitutional democracy.
These core pedagogical principles function cyclically to present an integrated approach to civic education. The first principle, Excellence for All, revolves around the need for diversity of narrative to effectively represent the multifaceted reality of civics and history that will best reach the diverse body of civic learners. This principle encourages EAD teachers to center equity and inclusion in both content and pedagogical approaches. The second principle is described as a Self-Reflection and Growth Mindset that EAD teachers should have regarding the expanding capacities of both themselves and their students. The third principle focuses on Building an EAD-Ready Classroom and School, highlighting the importance of learning environments that are integrated with students’ home lives and constructed as communities within which every student feels a sense of membership and belonging. The fourth core principle identifies Inquiry as the Primary Mode for Learning that will cultivate students’ own capacities for civic agency and critical engagement. The actual Practice of Constitutional Democracy and Student Agency is the fifth principle, which calls for microcosmic models of democratic practices within the educational realm. The sixth and final pedagogical principle is to Assess, Reflect, and Improve. As with any effective and high-quality pedagogy, the EAD promotes a cycle of assessment and reflection regarding student understanding and application of civic skills. Results of quality assessments may then form a framework for further developments and improvements to curriculum and instruction.
The development of the Roadmap represents the overarching goal of EAD, to strengthen this nation’s history and civic learning and to “ensure that civic learning opportunities are delivered equitably throughout the country” (Educating for American Democracy, 2021). The seven themes that encompass the conceptual and disciplinary content of the Roadmap relate directly to the desired outcomes for learners’ civic skills and dispositions. Included in these themes are foci on institutional transformation, changing social landscapes, contemporary conflicts, and global context, which represent a progressive lens on civic education that recognizes the dynamic fluidity of society and government. The goal of the EAD, to ensure an excellent education in civics and history for all students, is presented alongside the requisite for “significant renewal and innovation” in the greater education system of the nation (Educating for American Democracy, 2021). The Roadmap moves concretely towards this goal by offering detailed guidance that is accessible on a nationwide scale, while affirming the necessity for transformative change at all levels of civic education, from the local to the national. The overarching goal to engage young people in their own development as active civic participants can be considered both an ideal outcome of civics education and also an essential feature of the pedagogy that will reach that goal.
Recent Research Trends
Scholarship regarding civics education has been developing and evolving to reflect the complexity of modern civic learning. Jamieson (2013) finds that attempts to improve civics education models reveal controversies between the nationalist roots of civics in the U.S. and the need for innovative pedagogy that effectively engages all students. She identifies three core issues that characterize these controversies: tension between the teaching of cultural heritage and critical thought, conflicting conceptions of citizenship, and the integration of parental choices within civic education (Jamieson, 2013). These ideological tensions are the center of conflicts regarding civics and history education in which traditional perspectives are posed against diverse perspectives as though they are opposite sides of a binary. Some states take on the struggle to develop a standard classroom curriculum that transcends the nationalist legacy of civics education, but without a radical foundation of equity and inclusion, classrooms will continue to reproduce the social status quo and the structures of inequity will remain in place to exclude marginalized students from effective civics education. Civic education in the United States has generally not been able to overcome the legacy of assimilation, which marginalizes and oppresses other cultures and American identities (Chavez, 2008; Chavez & Hing, 2006; Love, 2019). Recent research regarding civics education in the U.S. generally focuses on the fallacies and shortcomings of various statewide civics curriculum without deliberate discussion of the ways in which civics education may continue to reinforce inequitable social status quo.
The ideologies of American exceptionalism and Americanism have consistently colored the dialogue around civics education in the U.S. and seem to persist as a central expectation of U.S. civics standards. In 2003, Congress held a hearing on a proposed bill that would establish academies for teachers and students of American history and civics to remedy what the government perceived as a failure in those curricula at state and national level (KF26, 2003). The central theme of this hearing was that American students could no longer recognize the exceptionalism of American history. One of the historians who participated in the hearing testified that American history is now taught as though “everything that happened was bad,” with the result being that students are overexposed to the defects of American history (KF26, 2003). Presenting U.S. history as either “all bad” or “all good” will always fall short of comprehensive education, because the reality is there are many layers of both “bad” and “good” within the history of this nation. Discouraging critical thinking about America’s history, mission, and democracy will not help to develop students into engaged civic agents.
Students who are taught nothing but the “best of American history” will not receive the tools necessary to drive social change nor to transgress the boundaries of institutionalized oppression in American society. The experts and senators in the 2003 hearing further emphasize that, rather than be taught effective classroom pedagogy, teachers need to be educated specifically in the material they will be sharing with their students (KF26, 2003). Although this hearing displays some of the more troubling themes in American civics education, such as the adherence to American exceptionalism and standardization, the participants in the hearing also highlighted the importance of laboratory teaching where students engage with civics material in policy simulations and debates (KF26, 2003). These approaches, especially service-based civics education, are becoming increasingly popular, giving students more pragmatic and hands-on learning opportunities. These same methods are promoted by the “Civics Learning Act of 2019,” which specifies multiple types of experiential models of civics education (H.R.849, 2019-2020).
A 2011 report released by the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools found that a combination of learning through simulations of democratic processes along with professional development would increase American civics education (Jamieson, 2013). Similarly, researchers at the Brookings Institution found that service learning and discussions of current events are correlated with positive civic engagement, such as commitment to community service later in life (Hansen. M., Levesque, E., Valant, J., and Quintero, D., 2018). However, Shapiro and Brown (2018) find that “few states provide service-learning opportunities or engage students in relevant project-based learning.” The iCivics initiative and Generation Citizen further affirm this connection between pragmatic civic learning and sustainable civic engagement while pointing out the lack of equity in the field of civic education that creates structural barriers to ensuring high-quality civics education for all students (Equity in Civic Education Project, 2020). It is crucial that the educators and teachers who are gatekeepers to the classroom community are well-equipped and willing to instruct all students in relevant and high-quality civics education. Civics education requires a responsible and committed teacher who cares about the development of their students as participatory citizens.
The Fordham Institute conducted a thorough quantitative assessment of the state of civics education in the United States (Stern et al., 2021). The researchers assessed the quality of civics and U.S. History standards of the fifty states and assigned grades to each state. Only five states demonstrated the qualities that defined an “exemplary” set of civics and U.S. History standards and received A- grades from the researchers. The framework for the assessment included five indicators of exemplary standards, which are described by the Fordham Institute as follows:
- Effectively articulate what every American should know about this country’s democratic institutions, traditions, and history.
- Emphasize skills that are essential to informed citizenship such as critical thinking, problem analysis, and evaluating, interpreting, and arguing from evidence.
- Champion essential civic dispositions such as respect for other persons and opinions, an inclination to serve, and a commitment to American institutions and ideals.
- Make effective use of elementary and middle school and require at least one year of U.S. History and one semester of Civics in high school.
- Develop user friendly standards documents that are well organized and clearly written. (Stern et al., 2021, p. 14)
These assessment parameters define practices that, effectively implemented, should ensure high-quality civics education for all students.
In response to the findings that the majority of states fell far short of quality standards, the Fordham Institute put forth the five recommendations for states to improve the quality of public civic education (Stern et al., 2021). These five standards provide empirically-based remedies to the general shortcomings of civics education in the United States. The first recommendation is to “maximize civics and U.S. History coverage in elementary and middle school and require at least one year of U.S. History and one semester of Civics in high school.” The second, to “provide more specific and detailed guidance in both subjects.” The third is to “put more emphasis on writing, argumentation, and the connections between core content and current events.” The fourth is to “take a simpler, more flexible, and more user-friendly approach to organization.” This standard is in regard to the ineffectiveness of having “strand” or “anchor” standards that in practice create disconnected and fragmented learning experiences. The recommendation is to “let the contents of each individual grade level or course dictate its organization” so that content may be chronologically ordered and placed in relevant context. The fifth and final recommendation is to “address specific oversights and/or gaps in coverage, per the individual state reviews,” which is an ongoing and evolving task for each state individually (Stern et al., 2021, p. 36-37).
These exemplary standards outlined by the Fordham Institute generally approach civics education through a bureaucratic lens while minimizing the potential of civics education through the unambitious definition of exemplary (Stern et al., 2021, p. 36-37). They outline what some would consider to be the minimum of requisite curricula and standards documents. In addition to these five standards, the framework of evaluation used by the Fordham Institute also included the “content, rigor, clarity, and organization” of K-12 civics and U.S. History standards (Stern et al., 2021, p. 14). The reasonable pairing of these two sets of standards is a particular approach to the consideration of civics education that implies an inherent connection between history and citizenship. Considering the intertwined history of citizenship and practices of civics education, the identification of certain “civic dispositions” as positive, such as the “commitment to American institutions and ideals,” might sway toward support for uncritical character education that can minimize the civic power of deliberation or dissent (Love, 2019). What is lacking from this set of standards is an insistence on the importance of participatory civics education that is rooted in students’ capabilities and experiences. While it is believably disheartening that many states fall short of even these standards, it is reasonable to imagine that exemplary civics education could aim so high as to actively engage students in civic processes throughout every year of their education.
The 2018 Brown Center Report on American Education created an inventory of the quality of civics education requirements throughout the United States. The model for high-quality civics education is framed around the ten proven practices collaboratively built by civics education scholars. Hansen, Levesque, Valant, and Quintero (2018) present three key components to the proven practices framework along with the explanation that “motivating this framework is a notion that teaching students facts about [the] U.S. government is a goal, but not the exclusive goal, of civics education. The ultimate aim is a more comprehensive and interactive understanding of civics” (p.16). This distinction between “government” and “civics” is relevant in the discussion of civics standards, as curricula that are skewed towards a bureaucratic approach to learning will approach the topic of civics by means of learning about government exclusively. Singular focus on the government as means of civics education leaves very little room for participatory learning within the classroom setting, which is problematic as interactive and participatory learning are identified as key features of high-quality civics education (Hansen, Levesque, Valant, & Quintero, 2018).
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