Recipe for improving civic education

Not all the changes in politics are bad. For instance, campaigns of all kinds are now conducted online. That presents an opportunity, since students are avid users of online tools. But they do have to learn to use, share, and create information responsibly.

As the political system evolves into something remote from the traditional civics textbook, educators, parents, and policymakers must take a new look at how we teach the subject. Preparing the next generation to work together to address serious national problems remains the core goal. It is even more important—but also especially difficult—in a time of rapid change and frequent crisis.

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The civic education that our schools currently offer certainly leaves much to be desired. In the most recent presidential election, more than three quarters of young people (ages 18-24) could not correctly answer two questions (out of the two that we asked them) about the candidates’ views on the issue that they identified as the one they most cared about. Furthermore, kids in low-performing schools and low-income communities have few opportunities to learn about politics and civic life, and they score much lower on civics.

The Commission on Youth Voting and Civic Knowledge is a bipartisan group of scholars convened by the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning & Engagement (CIRCLE) at Tufts University’s Tisch College. The Commission’s recently released report, “All Together Now: Collaboration and Innovation for Youth Engagement,” presents compelling original research and relevant recommendations for educators and others who shape the next generation of active citizens.

We surveyed civics teachers as well as youth for the Commission report. The teachers showed extraordinary commitment. Nearly all of them said that it was important to teach students about the responsibilities of citizenship (98 percent) and reported using controversies in the news to foster classroom debate (94 percent).

Some of their other responses, however, indicated the challenges they face in trying to fulfill their civic mission.

First, they complained of restrictive curricula and testing standards that leave little time for learning to deliberate about current issues. “Should that be a priority?” said one teacher when we asked about teaching civil discussion. “Well, of course, but I don’t have time to teach it.”

Even when they do have time, many teachers are wary of touching controversial topics: a quarter of them said that parents or members of their community would object to political discussions in a course on government or civics. Fourteen percent even believed that parents would object if they encouraged students to vote. “I don’t feel supported,” said another teacher, “and I can’t take that risk.”

Civic educators should not feel that they are putting their job on the line by encouraging the kind of respectful, constructive debate that is necessary to a vibrant democracy. We need policies to protect their careers. Influential pundits and politicians also have a role to play; rather than furiously denouncing examples of in-school speech that they consider biased, they should stand up for free and civil discourse.

Teachers also need opportunities to learn how to facilitate conversations about difficult issues, both in the classroom and online. Very few reported that they had received much education of that type. Discussions of controversial, current issues are particularly rare in schools that serve students from diverse backgrounds, perhaps because broaching controversial topics in diverse settings seems difficult. However, discussions of current events are especially valuable in just those schools.

We must change course requirements and tests so that the discussion of current events is encouraged and rewarded. All students must have experiences with discussion and must be able to take constructive civic action, or else huge gaps in political knowledge and engagement will persist for another generation.

Effective classroom learning leads to increased voting and civic participation. To support and strengthen these educational opportunities is an investment in the future of our youth, our democracy, and our nation. Engaging the next generation may be the best long-term solution to the current problems of political polarization, incivility, and dysfunction.

Grayson is the director of the Institute of Politics at the Harvard Kennedy School and a former Kentucky Secretary of State (R). Levine is the director of CIRCLE and the Lincoln Filene Professor in the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service at Tufts University.