Teaching democracy instead of just preaching it: A call for civic education

It’s time for the hand-wringing about education to stop.

For decades, we have been mourning the loss of civic-minded, globally informed, constitutionally aware, tolerant and civically engaged people. We cite the Annenberg Public Policy Center’s Civics Knowledge Survey, which found that only two in five American adults – or 39 percent – could correctly name the three branches of government:

Not only is knowledge of history and civics lacking, but even when our citizens understand government, they don’t trust it. Just 20 percent of U.S. adults say they trust the government in Washington to “do the right thing” just about always or most of the time.

So, what if we stopped complaining about the problem and imagined an entirely new education system designed around civic engagement, history, political science and civil discourse with the goal of preparing civic-minded, active citizens who would understand our constitutional democracy and want to participate in it? What if we could create a K-12 educational system able to prepare Americans to be part of democracy?

Well, the good news is that it is being unveiled. 

For the past 18 months, a leading, bipartisan group of more than 300 scholars, educators and practitioners has been meeting to create The Educating for American Democracy (EAD) project, which this week is releasing a roadmap that provides guidance on how states and school districts might reimagine civic education in this country for students from kindergarten through 12th-grade.

The project, which was funded by $1.1 million from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the U.S. Department of Education, is an unprecedented, bipartisan effort to build excellence in civic and history education for all K-12 students.

This new initiative, led by iCivics, Harvard University, Tufts University and Arizona State University, has an ambitious plan. 

The goal is that by 2030: 

  • 60 million students will have access to high-quality civic learning opportunities, where high-quality is defined as excellence in teaching of civic knowledge, civic skills and civic dispositions; also, a diverse supermajority will be actively engaged in earning civic learning credentials;
  • 100,000 schools will be “civic ready” (have a civic learning plan and resources to support it in place), prioritizing excellence in teaching of civic knowledge, civic skills and civic dispositions; and
  • 1 million teachers will be EAD-ready (having received excellent pre- and in-service professional development).

How? By creating the tools and resources at the local, state and national levels with a series of programs and principles to guide schools with standards, curricula and materials in what the authors call “a shared project of achieving excellence in history and civics education in support of civic strength.”

The first question critics will ask is, who will pay for it? The authors are clearly looking for federal, state and local support to raise the level of democracy teaching akin to what President Eisenhower did after the Soviets launched Sputnik in 1957 — making a massive investment in science and math education to develop the next generations of scientists and engineers. Over time our schools focused on STEM education.

What has been ignored, the report argues, are the social sciences and civic learning related to history, political science and basic facts about constitutional democracy. According to the report, the federal government spends $50 per student per year on STEM-related courses, but just five cents per student on history, government, political science and civics.

Beyond money, critics of the report might warn that trying to offer guidance on civics risks running headlong into partisan debates over curricula. The report underscores, however, that it is not providing a “mandate” but a set of recommendations.

Lastly is the question of America’s political will to tackle the new educational challenges laid out in the report in the wake of a pandemic that has set us back on in-classroom learning. In that regard, we are fortunate to have a first lady, Jill Biden, who is a teacher and is passionate about education; and a president, Joe Biden, who is passionate about democracy. Taken together, this might be the right time with the right leaders to reengage the nation in civic education. I hope it is. 

Tara D. Sonenshine is a former U.S. under-secretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs. Follow her on Twitter @TSonenshine.

Tags Civic education in the United States Civic engagement Civics Civics education Jill Biden Joe Biden

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