Civics Education Is Essential for Creating Engaged Citizens. I’m Hopeful It's About to Make a Comeback.
On a memorable morning in my high school civics class, the students—seniors, full of energy—learned about the formation and function of our legislative branch. But they weren’t reading from a textbook. They were roleplaying.
Let me set the scene for you.
One student, standing up and projecting his voice, declared: “Virginia objects to New Jersey demanding that She give away Her fair and right voice in the new government. We have a larger population. Therefore, it is right and fair we have more influence on the actions of government.”
A student on the opposing side retorted: “No way. New Jersey cannot agree to your plan, as it all but ensures that New Jersey and other small states will always lose to the votes and power of Virginia and other largely populated states.”
It went back and forth for a while until a student representing Roger Sherman proposed the Connecticut Compromise, allowing for one chamber in the legislative branch to be based on population and the other on equal representation.
This debate alone took an entire class period, yet laid the foundation for my students’ understanding of how Congress was born and how it works. Participating in a simulation of the Constitutional Convention offered them a structured experience to practice the skills necessary for civic discourse—listening, discussing and compromising.
The project was at times messy and chaotic, placing control in the hands of students. But it provided them an engaging way to learn firsthand the difficulties of creating and sustaining a government structure.
Students routinely arrive in my classroom lacking even a basic understanding of civic principles, constitutional knowledge and U.S. history.”
In my experience of over two decades teaching civics, law and U.S. history in a traditional public rural high school and now in a public alternative school, I have learned that the most effective strategies for providing an authentic civics learning experience are rooted in knowledge and require learners to simulate a real-life phenomenon. Students learn best when they study real ballot initiatives during an election year or work with journalism professors to write their own editorials for the local paper.
Yet despite my success using reenactments and roleplaying, students routinely arrive in my classroom lacking even a basic understanding of civic principles, constitutional knowledge and U.S. history.
Consequently, for the simulations to be effective learning experiences, I must then teach them the foundational knowledge they should have been taught in younger grades. This can eat up days of instructional time before we’re ready to dive into grade-appropriate topics.
This is not just a problem for teachers like me. It’s a problem for our country and its future as a democracy. But there is a solution: stronger, more equitable civics education that starts earlier.
Civics Education Is at a Crossroads
This knowledge gap is due in large part to the sidelining of K-12 social studies since the early 2000s, with the implementation of No Child Left Behind. With an increased emphasis on improving test scores in reading, writing, math and science, social studies fell to the wayside.
In practice, this meant districts were all but forced to use their limited resources to support teacher training and adopt new curricular materials in the subjects that were federally tested, leaving little funding for social studies and the humanities. This is especially evident in the elementary grades, which on average only teach social studies 30 minutes a week. This number decreases further in schools whose students struggle to meet educational benchmarks, with teachers believing their time is better spent focusing on math, science and reading—in other words, the “testable” subjects.
Without dedicated time, attention and materials teaching our younger children about this country’s history—including a multitude of narratives and perspectives—how will students enter middle school with a historical foundation and shared civic values, ready to practice and deepen their civic knowledge and skill set?
Countless individual teachers have dedicated their careers to engaging students civically. Yet this is not enough. We need real and systemic change.”
The effect is further exacerbated in high school, where in many states, students encounter U.S. history and civics for the first time as upperclassmen. This is too late in their educational career to gain a meaningful and deep understanding of American history, civic ideals and practices. The result is that most students graduate high school with superficial, if any, civics knowledge.
Nationally, we are at a crossroads. For our democracy to continue, future generations must know its structures, ideals, history and ways to engage within their respective communities. Countless individual teachers have dedicated their careers to engaging students civically. Yet this is not enough. We need real and systemic change.
The Key to a Comeback?
A good place to start—one that I am excited about and heartened by—is the Educating for American Democracy (EAD) roadmap, an initiative led by a broad spectrum of civics organizations, including the nonprofit iCivics and a number of academics and educators, which seeks to elevate and act on the need for civics education throughout a student’s education. I am most inspired by the EAD’s acknowledgement and focus on the need for U.S. history and civics to be studied in an interdisciplinary manner.
Effective civic understanding comes from studying historical moments where we as a nation moved toward achieving a more perfect union, as well as those times when we did not live up to the “better angels” of our nature. While the EAD roadmap is not a curriculum, it does provide thematic questions anchored both in history and civics, which educators can use to guide curricular and pedagogical decisions. The EAD framework centers itself within the inquiry process encouraging student agency and authentic learning.
For example, using “We the People,” one of the EAD’s seven themes, elementary grades can study, in age-appropriate ways, how America has defined who is an American in the naturalization process by reading picture books and working with corresponding primary sources. Secondary students can investigate what factors determined citizenship through historical case studies centered on both national and local narratives. Students learning the rule of law might compare how citizenship was interpreted and determined in the U.S. Supreme Court decision favoring tribal ownership of land in Cherokee Nation v. Georgia in 1831, in comparison to the 1957 ruling in Cooper v. Aaron, requiring the state to end racial segregations of public schools in Little Rock, Ark.
Teachers wanting students to learn how Black Americans, in their fight for equality, exerted agency in planning, facilitating and sustaining the Bus Boycott, might provide students primary sources from the Rosa Parks Papers collection at the Library of Congress to analyze and interpret. Additional case studies could require learners to take their understanding of the Bus Boycott and apply it to learning about the Delano Grape Strike, led by Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta, and take a position regarding how the two groups used civic participation to further their objectives.
From my perspective, the most powerful characteristic of the EAD is its push for the systemic and equitable teaching and learning of civic knowledge and skills, from kindergarten to grade 12. Democracy isn’t a spectator sport. If we want an active, informed and engaged republic, then commitment to those goals must begin in elementary school—if not earlier—and build momentum and depth throughout a student’s career.
Democracy isn’t a spectator sport. If we want an active, informed and engaged republic, then commitment to those goals must begin in elementary school—if not earlier.”
Districts need to put time, attention and resources behind mapping out the scope and sequence of a student’s civic development, from the moment they enter school until they graduate. Students must be given multiple opportunities to practice civics skills and apply their civic knowledge in the safety of the schoolhouse before launching them into society and expecting them to fully engage in democracy. This is especially necessary for students coming from traditionally marginalized groups who rarely have had intentional and engaging civic instruction.
Thomas Jefferson once stated, “I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education.”
Our students want and deserve a rich and robust understanding of our nation’s past and its civic structures—I have learned this again and again throughout my career. I am hopeful and inspired to see how dedicated educators across the country will use the EAD to create meaningful systemic change resulting in powerful and transformative civics education. Our democracy depends on it.