K-12 Education

Reinvigorating Civics Education, Rebuilding Democracy

August 18, 2020  • Christopher Maximos, Rising Sophomore at Stanford University & Education and Society Program

During the last week of my eighth-grade U.S. History class, my teacher assigned a multiple-choice version of the United States naturalization test. In her estimation, the test covered both the broad strokes of our class and the requisite knowledge that any citizen would need to contribute to our government. Although I hazarded through a few of the questions (at that time, I had the privilege of not knowing when Tax Day was), I passed the test, purportedly confirming my readiness to participate in American civic life. 

That test was both my first and last civics-oriented educational experience. Despite all of its elective social studies courses, my high school never offered a specific civics class, covering the duties of citizenship or methods of civic participation. This left me with a wildly asymmetric understanding of American government. In my AP U.S. History class, we spent nearly a week analyzing the contested Election of 1800. But, I graduated high school without ever learning how to submit an absentee ballot request. We read the entire majority decision of Citizens United v. FEC, yet no one advised us on the rules surrounding individual contributions to campaigns.

In the majority of America’s schools, civics education is insufficient. A 2018 survey from the Education Week Research Center found that just fifty-four percent of high schools and twenty-three percent of middle schools offered standalone civics classes. Across all grade levels, nearly half of administrators surveyed say their schools devote between eleven and twenty-five percent of their social studies curriculum to civics. 

The deprioritization of civics has resulted in two achievement gaps. On the most recent National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) civics exam, twenty-four percent of eighth-graders performed at or above proficiency. Without the specific content knowledge about government and how to participate in it, students fail on the larger metrics of civics education: voting and volunteerism. Prior to the 2018 midterm election, just twenty-six percent of eligible young voters intended to vote, compared to eighty-two percent of Americans over sixty-five. This disparity cannot be chalked up to political apathy; in fact, my generation is likely the most politically-aware and socially-active in recent history. Students are failing to vote because they lack the civics education to channel civic energy into electoral participation.

Educational stakeholders must implement robust civics education at every grade level, both expanding standalone civics classes and integrating civic principles into core subject-curricula. Truly effective civics programs shouldn’t just teach about the government; they should offer students the requisite knowledge and agency to effect change at every level of government. Through project-based curricula known as action civics, schools can immerse students in the dynamic democratic process, inspiring them to take action outside of the classroom. Mock elections might inspire a student to become an election judge. Policy debates can help students develop solutions to prescient issues in their own community and propose them to local policymakers. By offering local volunteering opportunities, schools can ignite a student’s commitment to a life of service.

Teaching a student that they have the power to make their community better is profoundly liberating. In my junior year of high school, I joined Citizen University’s Youth Collaboratory, a year-long program on civic empowerment for twenty-four students from across the United States. I took countless lessons from the program, but the most valuable was the first thing we learned: everyone has the power to contribute to civic life. I didn’t need to be on the school board to advocate to my administrators, and I didn’t need to wait until I could vote to hold our political leaders accountable. My civics education through this program didn’t just teach me the importance of voting, it taught me that I was important to the civic process notwithstanding my vote.

I am far from the first person to say that civics education is important. In fact, I’m likely not the first person today writing an editorial on its value. But, if politicians of every ideology and educators of every background see the value of civics education, why do we remain reticent to expanding civics requirements? The short answer, as is often the answer in education, is testing. The aforementioned Education Week survey found that leaders’ “top civics-related challenge is the pressure to focus on other subjects because they are tested or emphasized.”

Research, however, demonstrates that robust civics programs go beyond building students’ leadership abilities; the skills learned in civics classes yield better academic outcomes across the board. In Chicago, George Washington High School transformed from an Illinois priority school with a graduation rate of sixty-one percent to a top-performing high school with an eighty-five percent graduation rate after instituting an expanded civics program. Their freshman-level civics class allows students to sharpen their critical reading, analytical, and communication skills by discussing current events and reviewing national laws. By teaching students to be informed participants in the democratic process, civics programs are building better readers, communicators, and overall learners.

It’s no secret that our democracy is in a critical time of social and political reckoning. The first Presidential election for the classes of 2017, 2018, 2019, and now, 2020 is occurring in the middle of a pandemic. Public trust in government stands at just seventeen percent, and false information permeates every major social media platform. This is the most challenging political environment that any civics teacher could ever dream of. To rise to this challenge, we must envision civics education that transcends the naturalization test.