Funding Professional Development in Civic Education: Timely Advice

Aug 22, 2016 / Message from the Center

By Charles N. Quigley

When it comes to finding the necessary funds to provide high-quality professional development to American educators, we should take the long view and see the greater societal benefit of such an investment. We should be careful not to be trapped into regressive budgeting plans that play into the old warning against being “penny wise and pound foolish.”

Several years ago the Center for Civic Education conducted a study to determine how well teachers of high school government courses could explain 55 key concepts in their field, such as popular sovereignty, habeas corpus, judicial review, federalism, checks and balances and the exclusionary rule. More than 50 percent of the teachers studied could not give adequate explanations of many of these concepts.

James Madison Legacy Project teachers at the Indiana/Ohio/Kentucky Institute at Indiana University in July 2016

James Madison Legacy Project teachers at the Indiana/Ohio/Kentucky Institute at Indiana University in July 2016

One factor that diminishes the role and effective implementation of civic education in our schools is the inadequate preparation of too many of our teachers, who have not had enough coursework themselves in such relevant fields as political science, political history and constitutional law. A high school government teacher once participated in a four-week summer institute on the history of American political thought conducted by the Center at the University of California, Los Angeles. When he completed the course, he said that he wished he could bring back all the students he had taught over the past 14 years so he could disabuse them of many of the misconceptions he had taught them. That statement speaks volumes about the value of investing in professional development.

There are many outstanding civic education teachers in America, including those who participate in the Center’s We the People and Project Citizen curricular programs and other worthy programs. These dedicated people, and other well-prepared educators who provide classroom instruction in comparable civics classes, deserve our highest praise for their commitment to excellence and their outstanding contributions to their students. There is abundant evidence that knowledgeable, skilled and dedicated teachers are the most important single factor in providing a sound civic education to our students. Unfortunately, far too few of our teachers have had opportunities for professional development that could help keep them abreast of new scholarship in their field.

A study conducted by the Center for the Study of Teaching and Policy, a consortium of five prestigious universities — Stanford, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Washington and Teachers College, Columbia — examined ways in which teacher qualifications are related to student achievement. Here are some of the more noteworthy findings from the study:

  • The effects of well-prepared teachers on student achievement can be stronger than the influences of student background factors, such as poverty, language and minority status.
  • Teacher quality characteristics, such as certification status and degree in the field to be taught, are very significantly and positively correlated with student outcomes. … The strongest consistently negative predictors of student achievement … are the proportions of new teachers who are uncertified and the proportions of teachers who hold less than a minor in the field they teach.
  • Other school resources, such as pupil–teacher ratios, class size and the proportion of all school staff who are teachers, show very weak and rarely significant relationships to student achievement when they are aggregated to the state level.

My esteemed colleague, Margaret Branson, who has provided intellectual capital to the field of civic education for more than 50 years, sized up the issue eloquently:

“If we were to sum up the central thrust of this study and put it in the vernacular, we would say, ‘Students learn when teachers know their stuff.’ ‘Knowing their stuff’ not only means that teachers know, love, and keep abreast of their field, it also means that teachers command a repertoire of instructional strategies which engage their students and foster their acquisition of knowledge and skills. Unfortunately, teacher quality is a particularly acute problem in the social studies. The problem of out-of-field teaching, or teachers being assigned to teach subjects that do not match their training or education, is widespread and serious. It happens in well over half of the secondary schools in the nation in any given year, both rural and urban, affluent and low income.”

We need to support the teaching profession through a massive investment in professional development, not just in civic education but in all the allied disciplines of the humanities. We should institute nothing short of a “Marshall Plan” to provide these resources to every community in the nation, especially school districts that have been ravaged by budget cuts. Through the years, the Center has conducted summer institutes across the nation to connect teachers with leading scholars in political science, political philosophy and constitutional law. These scholars provided teachers with the content they needed to master their teaching of the U.S. Constitution. In addition, the institutes gave teachers the benefit of learning innovative instructional strategies that they can use to inspire and motivate their students to become engaged citizens.

These teachers are among the more than 2,000 educators receiving professional development in civic education through the James Madison Legacy Project.

These teachers are among the more than 2,000 educators receiving professional development in civic education through the James Madison Legacy Project.

Most recently, our Center was very pleased to be awarded a grant through the Supporting Effective Educator Development (SEED) program of the U.S. Department of Education to conduct the James Madison Legacy Project. The project is a three-year nationwide initiative to increase the number of highly effective teachers of high-need students through professional development. Thus far, thanks to the administrative excellence of the Center’s state coordinators, the program has been highly successful, and there are waiting lists of teachers in many states trying to get into the program. For more details about the James Madison Legacy Project, please go to On this page, there is a map of the United States that you can click to identify the state coordinator in your state who is administering the James Madison Legacy Project.

There is a good opportunity in the new federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) to press school districts for professional development in our field, because “civics and government” is identified as a core academic subject in its definition of well-rounded education. Here is the text from the new ESSA law:

(52) WELL-ROUNDED EDUCATION.—The term ‘well-rounded education’ means courses, activities, and programming in subjects such as English, reading or language arts, writing, science, technology, engineering, mathematics, foreign languages, civics and government, economics, arts, history, geography, computer science, music, career and technical education, health, physical education, and any other subject, as determined by the State or local educational agency, with the purpose of providing all students access to an enriched curriculum and educational experience.

All levels of government, the philanthropic community and corporate America should take notice of the need to invest in our teachers. A good civic education for our students is an investment in the future well-being of our democracy. I think all the Founding Fathers would agree.

Please send me your reactions to this article, suggest improvements, and let me know of other topics we should be discussing by emailing me at

Charles N. Quigley is the executive director of the Center for Civic Education. He is broadly recognized as one of the most prominent curriculum and program developers in the field of civic education. Quigley is the author and editor of many textbooks, curricular materials, e-publications, and articles on civic education. He is the creator of We the People: The Citizen and the Constitution, Project Citizen, the CIVITAS Model Civic Education Curriculum Framework, the National Standards for Civics and Government, and the Civitas International Programs. He has served as a senior consultant and organizer for numerous civic education reform efforts, including two White House conferences, four Congressional Conferences on Civic Education, and the National Commission on Civic Renewal. He currently directs the James Madison Legacy Project.

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