In addressing this topic the idea of a rather barren desert with oases came to mind. A desert is appropriate because I think that civic education as a formal part of the curriculum that is translated into effective instruction just does not exist in many schools in the United States today. Although there are some oases, outstanding teachers and curricular programs there are not enough. No thorough studies of the current state of civic education in our schools yet exist. Nevertheless, a number of my colleagues and I estimate that at most fifteen percent of our students at the pre-collegiate level receive an adequate education in this field.
Before going further, I would like to state a major reason why adequate civic education is not widespread. I will also present standards that I think should guide educational policy in this field. Although a study of state curriculum guidelines will reveal that every state notes the need for civic education, this important part of the student's overall education is seldom given sustained and systematic attention in the K-12 curriculum. Inattention to civic education stems in part from the assumption that the knowledge and skills citizens need emerge as by-products of the study of other disciplines or as an outcome of the process of schooling itself.
While it is true that history, economics, literature, and other subjects do enhance students' understanding of government and politics, they cannot replace sustained, systematic attention to civic education. Therefore, a number of my colleagues in the field and I have developed the following standards that should guide the development of educational policy in every state and school district in the nation.
The following is a brief overview of the recent history of civic education, its current status including related research findings, and information regarding the current movement to develop increased support for the widespread implementation of civic education programs in our nation's schools.
The 60s, of course, meant a "goodbye to all that." Vietnam and then Watergate brought disenchantment, rebellion, experimentation, a loss of faith in traditional institutions and traditional leaders, the break-up of consensus, weakening of the core culture, the advent of heterogeneity, multiculturalism, etc. One of the great ironies of Americaís civic culture in this century, is the fact that it has been so victimized by its success. The civil rights movement and the opening of the floodgates to immigrants from all corners of the globe have created a diverse society in many ways out of synch with the common (and admittedly ethnocentric) core values that underwrote civic education earlier in this century. Redefining civic education in this polyglot world is the overriding challenge for civic educators today.
Part of the problem in attempting to gain support for policies that require the inclusion of civic education in the schools is itsí checkered past referred to above. Although there have undoubtedly been outstanding teachers of civics and government since the first schools were established in this country, in the fifties and sixties civic education was not noted for its attention to the realities of our political history or contemporary events. Nor was it noted for stimulating student interest. Programs were not well designed to develop among students a thoughtful appreciation for their heritage of our system of ordered liberty and the constant struggle to bring reality closer to the ideals of our system. Most civic education texts were for the upper grades and they contained dry portrayals of the formal structure of our federal government, charts on how a bill becomes a law, and sometimes idealized portraits of the heroes of our political history. The most common method of teaching was lecture and more attention was paid to the memorization of facts, important as that may be, than to inquiry, discussion, and debate.
This image of education in civics, government, and history as dry, dull and irrelevant, indeed an indoctrination that whitewashed our past and much of our present, led in the 60s to a reaction against the field. This resulted in the elimination of widespread requirements for civic education in our schools and a reduction of attention to political history in texts in favor of such topics as social history, the history of the labor movement, civil rights history and the like. While many of the new emphases were improvements, the reduction of attention to civics and government and political history was not.
The origins of the current movement to improve civic education. Henry Steele Commager once remarked that reforms in education have almost always come from forces outside of our educational system. Often these forces have been motivated by events that have revealed the shortcomings of one or more aspects of our educational programs. The movement to improve civic education that began in the 60s is no exception.
Sputnik shocked concerned people in the United States and brought to our attention, among other things, the incredible knowledge gap between our universities and what was being taught in our schools, first in mathematics and science, and later in other fields. As a result, Congress passed first the National Defense Education Act and later the Education Professions Development Act. Both acts supported training programs at universities for pre-collegiate teachers, the development of improved curricular materials, and research and evaluation. In addition to other fields, these acts provided support for the involvement of departments of political science, history, sociology, schools of law and other disciplines in the improvement of pre-collegiate programs in civics, government, and the law. A number of major national programs working today, including several university-based programs, received their foundational support under these acts. Unfortunately, the level of federal support provided at that time no longer exists.
Controversies about the decisions of the Warren Court drew attention to the low level of public understanding of the Constitution and the role of the courts. In the early 1960s, Justice Brennan and other concerned members of the profession including representatives of a number of law schools, the American Bar Association, and the bench, met near Washington, D.C. I do not know what title they gave their meeting, but since it addressed the same issues as this meeting, it could well have had the same title, "Public Understanding and Perceptions of the American Justice System." Whether this meeting was the event that triggered the nationwide involvement of the legal profession in the improvement of civic education or not, it had a significant impact. Key participants at that meeting returned to their states and took leadership roles in initiating many civic education programs of bar associations, law schools, and courts that continue to exist today.
The value of the contribution of the field of law has not only been in drawing attention to the need to improve education in civics, government, political history, and the law; it has also helped to remedy some of the problems of earlier civic education programs. The emphasis on case studies brings reality and relevance into the classroom as well as the excitement of discussion and debate. The use of the interactive methodology of the law school fosters inquiry, reflection, and the development of analytic skills. The use of mock trials, moot courts, arbitration and mediation hearings, and other simulations of judicial procedures bring excitement into the classroom and stimulate interest in and appreciation for our system of justice. The extension of the use of simulations to include town meetings, legislative and administrative hearings, coalition building, and lobbying exercises has helped to develop an understanding of our political institutions and procedures as well as the development of participatory skills.
Improvements in civic education. During the past thirty years, the increased participation of university-based scholars, members of the legal profession, and other public and private sector volunteers active in political life has led to significant improvements in civic education for many students. Most notable among these are the quality of curricular materials, the introduction of improved methods of instruction, and the improved training of our teachers.
There exists, therefore, a base upon which to greatly expand the offering of high quality education in civics, government, political history, and the law throughout the United States. This is the challenge we now face.
At the end of the eighties, when the governors met in Charlottesville to develop the National Goals, they made no mention of the civic mission of the schools in the first drafts of that document. R. Freeman Butts, a noted educational scholar, observed that although the governors were meeting near the home of Thomas Jefferson, it was clear that he was not there. It took a concerted lobbying campaign to get the goal of citizenship included in the National Goals. It took an act of Congress to add the development of the National Standards for Civics and Government to the development of national standards in other disciplines.
Our Center has provided a grant to the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin to do a thorough study of state mandates in civic education. A preliminary review of state legislation, education codes, and state curricular frameworks reveals that it is common to give "lip-service" to the need to develop competent and responsible citizens, but little is done to impose concrete requirements that meet the standards set forth above.
Inadequate teacher preparation. A high school government teacher recently took a four-week summer institute on the history of American political thought conducted by our Center at the University of California at 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 thirteen years so he could disabuse them of many of the misconceptions he had given them.
Several years ago our Center conducted a small study to determine how well teachers of high school government courses could explain fifty-five key concepts in their field such as popular sovereignty, habeas corpus, judicial review, federalism, checks and balances, and the exclusionary rule. More than fifty percent of the teachers studied could not give adequate explanations of many of these key concepts.
The National Center for Educational Statistics reported in 1996 that more than half of all students in history and world civilization classes are being taught by teachers with neither a major nor a minor in history. Another study found that 71 percent of social studies teachers have degrees in education and 65 percent have degrees that are not related to any academic disciplines. No data currently are available on the subject matter qualifications of teachers of civics and government, but it is reasonable to assume that the numbers of teachers with majors or minors in political science or allied fields would be even fewer.
Inadequate outcomes. The research findings revealing widespread lack of knowledge of politics and government, apathy, alienation, and low levels of participation are not surprising when one considers the lack of widespread and effective civic education in our schools and the inadequate preparation of many of those who do teach civics and government.
The nation's oldest and most comprehensive assessment of the attitudes of freshmen at 464 institutions is conducted annually by the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California at Los Angeles. The "American Freshman: National Norms for Fall 1997," (Sax and Astin, et al. 1997), its most recent report, found that "this year's college freshmen exhibit higher levels of disengagement both academically and politically than any previous entering class of students."
The 1997 freshmen demonstrate the lowest levels of political interest in the history of the survey. A record low 26.7 percent of today's freshmen believe that "keeping up to date with political affairs" is a very important or essential life goal (compared to 29.4 percent last year and a high of 57.8 percent in 1966). Similarly, an all-time low 13.7 percent of freshmen says they frequently discuss politics (compared to 16.2 percent last year and a high of 29.9 percent in 1968).
Students' disinterest in politics is paralleled by their increasing disinterest in activism. In the five years since students' interest in activism peaked on the 1992 survey, many indicators of activism have declined.
When asked to identify the causes of American ignorance of the document that they profess to revere and that they acknowledge matters a great deal in their daily lives, the Center's report draws attention to the schoolsí failure to teach civics and government.
The most recent "National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) Report Card in Civics" was based on research done in 1988 and reported in 1990. It revealed that students have only a superficial knowledge of civics and lack depth of understanding. For example, only 38 percent of 8th graders knew that Congress makes laws; and nearly half of high school seniors did not recognize typical examples of the federal system of checks and balances. Although half the high school seniors tested displayed a detailed knowledge of major government structures and their functions, only six percent demonstrated a more developed understanding of a wide range of political institutions and processes.
National programs. Many classroom projects such as those described above take place as a part of national programs conducted by professional associations, nongovernmental organizations, and universities. These groups, many of which began in the 1960s, continue to provide significant contributions to civic education in our nation's schools. They include the American Bar Association Division for Public Education; the Center for Civic Education affiliated with the State Bar of California; the Constitutional Rights Foundations of Los Angeles and Chicago, both affiliated with bar associations; the Close Up Foundation; and the Street Law program which originated at Georgetown Law School. Brief descriptions of these programs follow.
The American Bar Association Division for Public Education (ABA) provides national leadership to law-related and civic education efforts in the United States, assisting state and local bar associations and a wide range of national, state, and local educational, legal, and civic organizations in program development, implementation, and dissemination. The Divisionís programs and materials are made available to lawyers, teachers, curriculum planners, and school administrators through various media appropriate for use with youth in elementary and secondary schools, undergraduate college and university students and adults. Reaching more than 5 million people each year, the Division's comprehensive education and outreach effort reflects the belief that a society guided by the rule of law requires a public that understands and appreciates the legal system.
The Division's efforts serve as a catalyst for developing effective, high-quality educational programs, for example, by housing a comprehensive resource center for public education about the law, forming organizational partnerships, educating journalists, and conducting minigrant programs to encourage innovation and to reach new audiences. The Division offers a variety of publications about the law, written by experts in their fields. These include instructional and informational materials for use in classrooms and community settings, practical law guidebooks and brochures for adults, as well as previews of all Supreme Court cases each term.
Two nation-wide programs developed by the Center for Civic Education, We the People... The Citizen and the Constitution and We the People... Project Citizen have now involved more than 20 million students during the past twelve years. The We the People... The Citizen and the Constitution engages students in simulated legislative hearings on constitutional issues. Project Citizen teaches middle school students how to identify, research, and devise solutions for local problems, as well as how to make realistic plans for gaining the acceptance of their solutions by their government. Both programs not only bring students into direct contact with government at all levels and with organizations in civil society, these programs have had other positive consequences as well.
Independent studies by the Educational Testing Service (ETS) in 1988, 1990, and 1991 revealed that students enrolled in the We the People... program at upper elementary, middle, and high school levels "significantly outperformed comparison students on every topic of the tests taken." Based on the superior performance of students at all levels, ETS characterized the program as a "great instructional success" and concluded that the "program achieved its major instructional goal of increasing students' knowledge of the Constitution and Bill of Rights."
Even more impressive were the findings of a subsequent test in which ETS compared scores of a random sample of 900 high school students who studied We the People... with 280 sophomores and juniors in political science courses at a major university. The high school students outperformed the university students in every topic area and on almost every test item. The greatest difference was in the area of political philosophy where the participating high school students scored 14 percent higher than the university students.
A 1994 study by Professor Richard Brody of Stanford University entitled "Secondary Education and Political Attitudes: Examining the Effects on Political Tolerance of the We the People... Curriculum," demonstrated that high school students taking part in the We the People... program develop a stronger attachment to political beliefs, attitudes, and values essential to a functioning democracy than most adults and other students. In the first study to look systematically at the effects of the We the People... program on students' civic attitudes, Professor Brody focused on the concept of political tolerance. The significance of this concept is that while majority rule is a basic principle of democracy, without attention to the rights of those in the minority it can degenerate into tyranny. "Political tolerance" refers to citizens' respect for the political rights and civil liberties of all people in the society including those whose ideas they may find distasteful or abhorrent. Thus, a goal of civic education is to increase students' political tolerance.
Professor Brody's results demonstrate that students involved in the We the People... program display more political tolerance and feel more politically effective than most adult Americans and most other students. Findings reveal that these students exhibit more political tolerance in a number of ways. These include (1) placing fewer restrictions on the press, speech, and the advocacy of radical or unorthodox ideas; (2) being more willing to grant freedom of assembly to groups with diverse opinions; (3) placing fewer restrictions on due process; and (4) displaying a willingness to grant others wide latitude to speak and act politically.
For nearly three decades, working with some half-million participants, the Close Up Foundation has been bringing high school students from across the country to Washington, D.C. Students participate in a weeklong, intensive program of seminars, workshops, and open discussions designed to increase the knowledge, skills, and attitudes that encourage greater civic participation and student efficacy. The program exposes students to fundamental democratic principles, governmental processes, and current public policy issues. They provide students active learning experiences in which they take part in on-site study of institutions, discussions and debates, simulations, and role-playing. The program focuses on issue-centered experiences that emphasize student involvement in the analysis and discussion of contemporary and historical matters of importance to themselves and our nation. They learn how widely disparate views are ultimately reconciled into public policy.
Research suggests that students who become engaged in issues-centered instruction are likely to become more interested in the political arena, develop a greater sense of political efficacy and confidence, and become more interested and knowledgeable about the issues they have studied. Students in Close Up programs report they feel more "connected" as a result of their experiences that help to demystify and humanize politics and politicians. Students report that they now know "the steps to take to influence law and politics."
The Constitutional Rights Foundation (CRF) is a nonprofit, non-partisan, community-based organization dedicated to educating America's young people about the importance of civic participation in a democratic society. The CRF sponsors a range of civic education programs and publications including direct service programs for students, curriculum development, training and technical assistance and publications. In California, CRF sponsors a statewide mock trial competition that involves 400 high schools and over 3000 lawyers and judges who volunteer and History Day, in which over 40,000 students participate with the help of nearly 2000 volunteers.
CRF has a wide range of publications for civic education and history, designed to supplement and enliven instruction. Nationally, CRF distributes Bill of Rights in Action to 30,000 social studies teachers, free of charge. This publication, which contains articles on civic education topics linked to the traditional social studies and history curricula have been widely used in American secondary schools for over 30 years.
In recent years, CRF has become deeply involved in the development of service learning; in which youth service to school, neighborhood and community is linked to the civic education curriculum. Studies conducted by Brandeis University and UCLA demonstrate a high degree of teacher and student satisfaction with these programs. The studies also show increases in teacher and student understanding of and increased knowledge of how to achieve change in their communities as well as significant increases in teacherís use of interactive classroom methodology.
The Street Law Program began at Georgetown University Law Center more than 20 years ago when law students developed a practical law course that was taught in D.C. public schools. The program continues to operate in the District of Columbia affiliated with Georgetown University Law Center. Today, Street Law, Inc. is a nonprofit organization dedicated to empowering people through law-related education (LRE). Students learn substantive information about law, democracy, and human rights through strategies that promote problem solving, critical thinking, cooperative learning, improved communication skills, and the ability to participate effectively in society.
Street Law, Inc.'s educational materials include its flagship practical law text Street Law first published by West Publishing Company in 1975. Now in its fifth edition, Street Law, along with its comprehensive set of instructional supplements, is used in high school classrooms in every state.
Prominent programs in civic education also can be found at institutions of higher learning such as Cumberland School of Law in Alabama, Harvard University, Indiana University at Bloomington, Lewis and Clark Law School, Ohio State University, Russell Sage College, University of Georgia.
It is important to note the extent of cooperation at local, state, national and even international levels among many of the existing programs in civic education identified above. Joint programs are common and there is also a considerable overlap among the national networks that have been established. These programs provide a base for the expansion of civic education throughout the nation.
Public opinion supports civic education. The field of civic education is also supported by the idea that American schools have a distinctively civic mission that has been recognized since the earliest days of the Republic. Jefferson, Madison, Adams, and others realized that the establishment of well-constructed political institutions was not in itself a sufficiently strong foundation to maintain constitutional democracy. They knew that ultimately a free society must depend on its citizens on their knowledge, skills, and civic virtues. They believed that the civic mission of the schools is to foster the qualities of mind and heart required for successful government within a constitutional democracy.
Americans still believe that schools have a civic mission and that education for good citizenship should be the schools' top priority. The 28th Annual Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll conducted in 1996 asked respondents what they considered to be the most important purpose of the nation's schools, apart from providing a basic education. "To prepare students to be responsible citizens" was considered "very important" by more people than any other goal. Nationally 86 percent of those with no children in school and those with children in public schools were in agreement; the percentage in agreement rose to 88 percent for nonpublic school parents. When Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup conducted a follow-up poll of teachers the results were the same (Langdon, 1996.) Eighty-four percent of America's teachers said "to prepare students for responsible citizenship was very important," while another 15 percent called it "quite important."
A survey that compared results from the United States with those of eleven other countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) also is revealing (U.S. Department of Education, 1997.) When Americans were asked which qualities or aptitudes schools consider "essential" or "very important," 86 percent said, "being a good citizen." Unfortunately, when Americans were asked if they had confidence that schools have a major effect on the development of good citizenship only 59 percent said that they did. For the reasons stated above, I think the respondents are overly optimistic.
Federal support for civic education. Compared with other fields the financial support for civic education from the federal government is modest. Congress and the Reagan, Bush, and Clinton administrations, however, have given increased recognition to the field of civic education for more than a decade. In 1986, the Commission on the Bicentennial of the U.S. Constitution was established and chaired by the late Chief Justice Warren E. Burger. Justice Burger stated that he wanted the legacy of the Commission to be a "history and civics lesson for all Americans." The Commission initiated civic education programs focusing upon the Constitution that are widely used in the United States today and are used increasingly in other developing democracies. The work of the Commission was the first major, broad-based, and national initiative in the renewal of civic education. The nationís legal community made impressive contributions to this initiative. Prominent among those involved were the American Bar Association, state and local bar associations, the Judicial Conference of the United States, federal district court associations, and the John Marshall Foundation.
Under the Bush administration our Center was supported in developing the National Standards for Civics and Government. The Clinton administration continued this support. Many states and local education agencies in setting their goals in civic education are using the National Standards. The Clinton administration also has supported the development of the forthcoming National Assessment of Educational Progress in Civics and Government based upon the National Standards. The results of that assessment will undoubtedly reveal some of the shortcomings of present programs and be useful in promoting improvement in the field.
Outstanding teachers, high quality programs, public opinion, and private sector and federal support are some of the "oases" in the present field of civic education. Many outstanding teachers and programs are making significant contributions to the preparation of our nation's youth to become competent and responsible participants in our political system. The problem, as noted above, is that the total reach of these programs only affects about 15 percent of our students. We need to do more.
Although our resources are limited, we do have the support of a national network of educators and volunteers who are committed to the goal. The National Association of State Legislatures supports improvements in civic education. Public opinion is behind us and there is an increasing recognition of the need for and importance of civic education. The legal profession has played a significant role during the past thirty years in working with educators and others to further civic education in our schools. I hope you will continue to do so and join us in our present effort.
We need policy establishing time requirements for civic education at the elementary level and specific course requirements at middle and secondary school levels. We also need policy suggesting how civic education can be furthered in related courses such as history, language, science, and mathematics. Our Center has developed a set of such recommendations in consultation with educators throughout the nation that can be obtained through our office or on our website at www.civiced.org. We are also collecting examples of legislation that may be useful as models and will soon be developing model legislative language that will be available from the same sources.
Aristotle said that "If liberty and equality, as is thought by some, are chiefly to be found in a democracy, they will be attained when all persons alike share in the government to the utmost." I think this statement conveys an important thought, but I would like to take the "liberty" of adding something to it. What is missing from Aristotle's statement is the idea that participation alone is not enough. We need to develop enlightened participation and the best way to do that is through civic education. Our task should be to develop the student's capacity to participate competently and responsibly. This includes fostering among our students a reasoned commitment to the fundamental values and principles of American constitutional democracy. Thus prepared, they should have the capacity and the inclination to work together to preserve our democratic heritage and narrow the gap between our ideals and reality.
Butts, R.F. (1989). The Morality of Democratic Citizenship: Goals for Civic Education in the Republicís Third Century. Calabasas, CA: Center for Civic Education.
Center for Civic Education (1991). National Standards for Civics and Government. Calabasas, CA: Center for Civic Education.
Langdon, C.A. (1996). "The Third Phi Delta Kappa Pool of Teachers Attitudes Toward the Public Schools." Phi Delta Kappan. (November).
National Assessment Governing Board (1996). Civic Framework for the 1998 National Assessment of Educational Progress. "Report Card in Civics" Washington, D.C.: National Assessment Governing Board.
National Constitution Center (1997). "The Constitution Poll." Washington, DC: National Constitution Center.
Niemi, Richard G. and Junn, J. (1998). Civic Education: What Makes Students Learn. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.
Sax, L.J., Astin, A.W., Korn, W.S. and Mahoney, K.M. (1997). "The American Freshman: National Norms for Fall 1997." Los Angeles, CA: Higher Education Research Institute, UCLA.
U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics (1997). "Public Attitudes Toward Secondary Education: The United States in an International Context." NCES 97-595: Washington, D.C.
U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics (1997). "Student Participation in Community Service Activity." NCES 97-331: Washington, D.C.
Back to Center for Civic Education home page
Send comments regarding this page to email@example.com
Send comments regarding this page to firstname.lastname@example.org