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America has a civic education problem — here's how to fix it

America has a civic education problem — here's how to fix it
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Passing important bills in Congress with bipartisan support seems like ancient history. The last major policy bill on which a president of one party and leaders of the other party collaborated was probably the No Child Left Behind Act, an education bill passed and signed into law nearly 20 years ago.   

Now, there is another education bill everyone can and should get behind. The Educating for Democracy Act, introduced in September on Constitution Day with bipartisan support, would finally do something about our chronic civic education crisis.   

The data about the civic education problem is certainly not fake news. Test scores from the National Assessment of Educational Assessment (NAEP) earlier this year showed that only 24 percent of America’s 8th graders are “proficient” or better in government and civics, with a shocking 15 percent proficient in U.S. history. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVosElizabeth (Betsy) Dee DeVosNational reading, math tests postponed to 2022 amid coronavirus surge Women set to take key roles in Biden administration America has a civic education problem — here's how to fix it MORE rightly called the results “stark and inexcusable,” but such low scores have been excused by inaction for years. A 2018 study showed that only one in three Americans could pass the civics portion of the national citizenship test.  Students apparently believe Judge Judy is on the Supreme Court and that climate change was started by the Cold War.   

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Sadly, everyone from the federal government to the schools has abandoned civic education in recent decades. Instead, our attention goes to reading and the new priority for STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education. By one estimate, the federal government now spends $54 per student annually on STEM and a meager five cents per student on civics. Schools used to require several courses in civics but, by now, the typical civics curriculum is a one-semester course in high school and virtually nothing in the elementary or middle school grades.   

I recently completed a study for the Orrin G. Hatch Foundation on the commonsense steps needed to right the civics ship, and it points to many of the provisions contained in the new Educating for Democracy bill. For starters, the federal government needs to begin funding civic education again, having dropped its support from nearly $150 million 10 years ago to about $5 million a year today. This bill would allocate $1 billion per year over the next five years largely to states and providers of civic education.   

Another commitment in the bill is to undertake adequate testing of civic education progress in the schools. We live in a testing culture in reading, math and science, but the NAEP test on government and civics is only given periodically and to 8th graders only. As the bill calls for, we need to be testing at least once in the elementary (4th grade), middle school (8th grade) and high school (12th grade) years. This encourages layer cake learning — setting a foundation of civic learning in the youngest grades that is built on every year through high school.   

The bill rightly acknowledges the priority of teacher training. There is not enough targeted training for civics teachers in their own schooling, and then on-the-job training is woefully deficient. If teachers do not have deep knowledge and a love for the subject matter, they will never reach their students. A few states, notably Florida, have developed teacher training models around newly implemented courses and goals for civic education.   

The federal government can only go so far in education, however, since K-12 education is still primarily a state and local matter. Therefore, it is left to the states to undertake the single most important effort to improve civic education: require it in the curriculum. As a report from the Education Commission of the States noted in 2017, most states require only a single one-semester course in civics, which “contrasts with course requirements in the 1960s, when three required courses in civics and government were common and civics were woven throughout the K-12 curriculum.” We cannot rest until civics is taught in elementary and middle schools, with a year-long course required in high school and a comprehensive test before graduation. States have a long way to go to get there. 

Our democracy has faced quite a stress test in 2020 and has shown vulnerabilities. In order to build greater resilience for the future, the answer is a renewed commitment to civic education, beginning with the bipartisan passage of the Educating for Democracy Act.   

David Davenport is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution and a visiting scholar at the Orrin G. Hatch Foundation.