Why civics education is making a comeback
Civics—a mainstay in public schools for generations, but widely sidelined in recent years—is making a comeback.
At the federal level, pending Senate legislation would require federal grant recipients to teach the U.S. Constitution—vital for students to understand the “fundamental principles and values on which our system is based” says Chuck Quigley, executive director for the Center for Civic Education.
States are pushing civics education as well. Washington established a stand-alone mandatory class for high schoolers, expanded teacher professional learning, and incorporated lessons about federal, state, local and tribal governments into its K12 curriculum.
Indiana allocates $300,000 per year toward the teaching of the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights.
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A bill to promote and enhance civics education through student-led projects passed recently in Massachusetts.
State coordinators there also revised the framework for K12 history and social sciences this year, and in doing so, created a grade 8 civics curriculum that covers freedom of the press, voting rights and functions of the Supreme Court, among other topics, says Roger Desrosiers, president of the Massachusetts Center for Civic Education.
Also in Massachusetts, 250 teachers participated in a summer civics education institute about a new eighth-grade course on the origins of the U.S. political system and current institutions, which was organized by the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.
The Center for Civic Education and other groups have been pushing state and federal governments to bolster programs, Quigley says.
“Civics education used to be required for kindergarten through sixth grade” Quigley says. “There are still required courses in 12th grade in almost every state, but that’s too late and too little.”
Our political system is very complex and sophisticated, and the average student doesn’t understand how it works, Quigley says. Each grade-level curriculum should build on students’ knowledge from previous years, he says.
The center supplies lesson plans and multimedia tools to embed civics principles across grade levels and to teach concepts such as gerrymandering and federalism, Quigley says.
Street Law Inc. and the Constitutional Rights Foundation also provide PD programs and classroom materials for civics and government courses.
The Civics Renewal Network, a coalition of nonpartisan organizations, seeks to increase the quality of civics instruction by making available “high-quality, no-cost” learning materials on hot-button topics such as abortion, national security and immigration.
Finding time for civics education continues to be a challenge for districts.
“Tuck it in wherever you can tuck it in” says Kathy Hand, executive director of Civic Education Washington State. Existing government classes, state and national competitions, and simulated public hearings can help build civics knowledge, she says.
Teaching classroom community in which every student has a role engages kids at the elementary level.
Hand receives a small state grant to provide textbooks and train high school instructors to use the Project Citizen program to teach public policy.
Middle and high school students collaborate to identify a problem in their community that requires government action.
They conduct research, analyze and evaluate alternative policies, develop a proposal, and create a plan to enlist local and state authorities to adopt their policy, Hand says.
“It’s so desperately needed because when people don’t like something, they take it to the streets and protest, but what do they do after that?” Hand says.
“You need to know who can change policy so you can get your way. Getting your way is power.”