Critical Issues in Civic Education

Presented at the
We the People... National Conference for State and District Coordinators
June 24 - 27, 2000
Washington, DC

Margaret Branson, Associate Director
Center for Civic Education


I am delighted to be asked once again to share some thoughts with this group of state and district We the People… coordinators and to have a public occasion to thank you for the significant contributions to civic education that each of you are making.

In preparing for this conference, I got to thinking about Immanuel Kant. That celebrated German philosopher is a man after my own heart-and, I suspect, after the hearts of many in this audience as well. It was Kant, you may remember, who said, "There are two human inventions which may be considered more difficult than any others-the art of government and the art of education." 1 And here you and I are, involved in both government and education!

As you know, Kant was a dedicated teacher. He did not retire until ill health forced him to do so when he was 77 years old. In his heyday at the University of Konigsberg, his lectures were so popular that the hall was filled an hour beforehand. He could be cross when students' sloppy dress, unusual looks, or fidgety deportment distracted him. He had great interest, however, in the average student. Kant said that he did not teach "for geniuses, their endowments being such that they will make a way for themselves; nor for the stupid, for they are not worth the trouble. I teach for the sake of those who stand between these two classes, and want to be prepared for their future work." 2

Every day at the midday meal-his one and only repast-Kant invited two to five guests to join him for profound conversation. Alas! I never would have been included because Kant thought "learning unbecoming to ladies" and that they lacked talent for serious conversation."

Kant was right about many things. I hope he was wrong about the talents of ladies, because I want to have a serious conversation with you this morning.

I would like us to consider three issues of moment to us as civic educators:

Teacher Quality: The Critical Issue

As the legislatures of our 50 states began adjourning their sessions for the year 2000, it was apparent that they have paid an inordinate amount of attention to teachers. Collectively they added some 70 or more new measures to the state law books touching everything from scholarships for students willing to enter the profession, to performance and "prosperity" bonuses, to tougher rules for getting a license, and for keeping a job.

The nation's legislators are concerned, of course, about the impending shortage of teachers. Just to replace those who will be retiring or leaving for other reasons, at least 220,000 new teachers will be needed every year over the next decade. 3 Legislators, however, are even more exercised about the quality of those who will be in the nation's classrooms. A Kentucky legislator probably expressed a view shared by most of his colleagues when he said "I think it is teacher quality that most needs addressing now." 4 And, if he were to consult any one of a number of recent, reliable studies, he would have ample evidence to support his contention.

One of the most extensive and definitive studies just completed was conducted by the Center for the Study of Teaching and Policy, a consortium of five prestigious universities (Stanford; Teachers College, Columbia; Michigan; Pennsylvania; and Washington). 5 Using data from a 50-state policy survey, high stakes test results, and case studies of selected states, the study examined the ways in which teacher qualifications and other school inputs are related to student achievement. Here in brief are some particularly noteworthy findings:

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. More than half of all secondary school history students in the country now are being taught by teachers with neither a major nor a minor in history. 6 No data currently are available on the subject matter qualifications of teachers of civics and government, but one could surmise that the number of teachers with majors or minors in political science or allied fields would be even less. Surely the time has come for us to address more vigorously the issue of teacher quality in our field of civic education.

I am aware, of course, of how much the members of this audience have done and are doing to enhance teacher quality. As state and district coordinators, you provide opportunities for teachers to deepen their knowledge of civics and government, to acquire and hone teaching skills, and to kindle or rekindle their enthusiasm for teaching. You encourage them to work with professional colleagues, build supportive networks, and utilize more fully the resources in their communities. You are to be applauded for your Herculean efforts. The need, however, is greater than current resources to meet it. We must expand our reach. We must mount and aggressively pursue a nation-wide initiative to insure that sustained and systematic attention is given to civic education in the K-12 curriculum. That initiative must include assurances that all students are taught by teachers who not only are qualified initially, but who continue to develop professionally.

A Tale of Two Studies: NAEP and IEA

In our efforts to mount and sustain a national initiative for civic education, we need to draw on the findings of two other recent and singularly important studies


When these two studies are considered in tandem they provide information about the status of civic education in the United States and about United States' civic education in the world context.

NAEP is the nation's only ongoing survey of what students know and can do in various academic subject areas. Authorized by Congress and administered by the National Center for Education Statistics in the U.S. Department of Education, NAEP regularly reports to the public on the educational progress of students in grades 4, 8, and 12. During 1998, students' knowledge of civics was assessed on the basis of the National Standards for Civics and Government. That assessment marked the end of a long dry spell. Even though mathematics, reading, science, and other subjects have been assessed with some regularity, civics had not been tested since 1988; it had languished for ten years. The results of the 1998 test, therefore, were eagerly anticipated. But when they were released in November 1999, they were something of a disappointment, to say the least. NAEP styles itself as the "report card for the nation." If it is, the civics report card certainly would not make Americans swell with pride. Indeed, in the old days it might have resulted in a trip to the proverbial woodshed.

The U.S. Department of Education tried to put the best face possible on the results. In its initial press release, the Department of Education claimed "that about two-thirds of students at each grade performed at or above the 'Basic' level…. About 25 percent of students at each grade level performed at or above the 'Proficient' level. Only 2 percent performed at the advanced level." The press release did go on to say that "the remaining 30 to 35 percent of the students at each grade level performed below the "Basic" level. 9 Later in the introduction to the full report, the Department admitted that, "Although these findings do not augur well for the future, it is instructive that Americans still believe that education for citizenship is one of the primary goals of education." 10

More astute observers were not persuaded by the Department of Education's gloss. Diane Ravitch, a member of NAEP's governing board and former Assistant Secretary of Education, called the findings "deeply troubling…. Only about one-quarter of high school seniors reach the standard of proficiency that means they are well prepared for these responsibilities (of citizenship)." 11 Charles Quigley, Executive Director of the Center for Civic Education, said the NAEP findings "are grounds for concern. They call for action to remedy a serious deficiency in the education of American citizens." 12

The nation's leading newspapers headlined stories about the NAEP results in far less diplomatic fashion. Consider these examples:

Troubled by the NAEP results, E.J. Dionne, Jr., a noted political scientist, wrote a special column for The Washington Post. Let me share a portion of it with you.

"As if parents didn't have enough to worry about already, consider the Civics Crisis. It's real. The results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress released earlier this month found that one-third of high school seniors lacked a basic grasp of the principles of American government and that fully three-quarters were not proficient in civics.

Oh, no, you say. Not another study showing our students aren't learning. Don't we have enough trouble just teaching kids to read and write. Can't civics wait?

In fact, civics is in the waiting room now, and that ought to be a national scandal. When the country began establishing public schools in the last century, the whole idea was that freedom depended on an educated citizenry. Civics wasn't an add-on. It was the whole point." 13

The NAEP Civics Report is available in print as a public document. It also is available on the Internet at the National Center for Education Statistics' (NCES) website and in alternate formats on request. This report is "must reading." It ought to be the subject of discussion at conferences, parent-teacher meetings, town halls, and with the organizations that constitute our civil society.

Late 1999 saw the release of results of another important study, Phase One of the IEA Civic Education Study. This study was conceived at the beginning of the 1990s in response to the continuing interest of countries who are members of IEA in the ways their young people are prepared for citizenship and in how they learn to take part in their societies and in public affairs.

The IEA was founded in 1959 for the purpose of conducting comparative studies focusing on educational policies and practices. Today, there are 54 member countries of IEA. Twenty-four of them took part in Phase One, the more qualitative portion of the study. In each country, a small team of researchers interviewed experts in civic education about expectations for adolescents. The researchers analyzed curriculum frameworks, national standards, and textbooks. In some countries, focus groups also were engaged. The findings of researchers in each of the 24 countries are contained in chapter-length national case studies in the Phase One report. That report has been published and now is available in book form.

Data collected during Phase One summarizes what panels of experts in each participating country believe that 14-year-olds should know about eighteen topics including elections, individual rights, national identity, and political participation.

It is impossible, given time constraints, to convey to you all of the findings of this study; the report runs to 622 pages, but these are a few of the more salient conclusions:

I strongly recommend that you read the full IEA report. It not only will afford you deeper insight into the concerns of civic educators in established and transitional democracies; it will provide you with a case study of civic education in the United States and allow you to make cross-national comparisons. Those of you who are part of the Center for Civic Education's international programs will find the report of particular value.

Data collection for Phase Two, now underway, consists of a test and survey to be administered in each participating country to representative samples of several thousand 14-year-old students. Phase Two also includes questionnaires for civics teachers and questionnaires which probe school-wide practices related to citizenship. Preliminary results of Phase Two are scheduled for release in February 2001. More detailed analyses of results will follow in 2002.

You will recall the excitement and the anguish that accompanied the publication of comparative achievement scores of students in science and mathematics in the so-called TIMMS report. It triggered an immediate response from policymakers and the general public which subsequently translated into more attention to and resources for the improvement of science and mathematics education. There is every reason to believe that when the IEA Civics Study is completed and released to the public it can result in demands for the improvement of civic education. We, as civic educators, need to be ready to capitalize on that opportunity.

Service and Civic Learning

One of the disturbing findings of any number of recent studies, including the IEA study, is that young people throughout the world tend to disdain politics, especially at the national level. That has prompted educators in many democracies, including the United States, to orient citizenship preparation more toward local communal factors and to link learning to broader concepts such as justice, authority, rights, and responsibilities. They have found that students respond enthusiastically to programs which challenge them to identify and act upon needs in their own communities. One example is the response to the Center for Civic Education's Project Citizen, now in use in more than 31 countries.

Involving America's students in their communities is one of the objectives established under the third National Education Goal for the year 2000. That goal is not new, however. A number of legislative initiatives have been launched during the past decade that have mandated support for community service activities in elementary and secondary schools. Among them are the National and Community Service Act of 1990, the Serve America program, the National and Community Service Trust Act of 1993, and the Learn and Serve America program (Corporation for National Service 1999). 14

Community service programs have proliferated in recent years. A survey conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) in the spring of 1999 found that 64 percent of all public schools, including 83 percent of public high schools, had students participating in community service activities recognized or arranged through the school. Thirty-two percent of all K-12 public schools organized service learning as part of their curriculum, including nearly half of all high schools. 15 I would like us to consider this phenomenon for a few minutes for several reasons. First, there is confusion about and subsequent misuse of the terms "community service" and "service learning." Second, in their eagerness to stimulate students' interest in civic life, educators often ignore what research tells us about the strengths and the limitations of community service. Finally, there is an assumption-a false assumption, however-among some educators and members of the public that community service can be a substitute for civic education and/or that it is a cure for our civic ills.

Let's first draw the distinction between the terms "service learning" and "community service." Richard Niemi, Professor of Political Science at the University of Rochester, defined the terms in a recent address to the American Political Science Association in this way:

Service Learning is the term generally used to denote community service that is incorporated into school courses. The service interval in the community is typically preceded with preparatory sessions intended to provide an informational and conceptual framework and awareness of social/political issues related to the service assigned. Post-service activities include written reflections and classroom discussion designed to heighten learning and encourage evaluation.
Community Service generally refers to voluntary work in the community that is not linked to the school curriculum, although it may be encouraged by or even arranged by the school. 16

Civic educators generally favor more systematic and substantial service learning programs which are integrated into the curriculum. Community service outside the civics curriculum does foster altruism. Students who feed the poor, tutor children, build homes, read to the blind, and visit the infirm or elderly feel good about themselves and they perform valuable social service. Their experiences, however, do not necessarily make them more thoughtful or active citizens. As Richard Battestoni, Director of the Feinstein Institute for Public Service at Providence College, puts it:

"A lot of people thought that the way to get citizenship was just to throw students out into service without challenging them to think in a civics way, to think about the public issues that underlie the very need for the service they are doing…. A lot of service programs have worked hard to get students the opportunity to do service, but they haven't challenged them to think." 17
Service learning stands in contrast to community service. It links "doing" with knowing, thinking, and acting as a citizen. Service learning which is tied to the curriculum enables students to see the connection between working in a soup kitchen and larger issues such as poverty and homelessness and how communities deal with those problems in light of other competing social needs. Service learning enables students to evaluate proposed policy changes that might alleviate the problems. It also should help students learn how to advocate for changes they think will be most beneficial.

Those who have claimed that community service in and of itself would cure political apathy and alienation of the young have to be disappointed with what current facts and figures tell us. This year's annual survey of freshmen in the nation's colleges and universities found only 16.7 percent of students interested in "influencing the political structure," 26 percent interested in keeping up with political affairs, and 28 percent in "being a community leader." By contrast 73.4 percent of this year's college freshmen said they want to be well-off financially. Those figures are of particular interest because a record 75.3 percent of this year's college freshmen did volunteer work while in high school. 18

Today we are in a better position to know the strengths and the limitations of community service programs. Thanks to increased interest in service learning, a considerable body of research is accumulating. Among the more significant findings of recent studies are these:

Community service can be an important part of civic education, provided it is properly conceived as being more than just doing good deeds. Community service should be integrated into both the formal and informal curriculum of the school. It is not a substitute for formal instruction in civics and government, but it can enhance that instruction. Schools, therefore, need to do more than make students aware of opportunities to serve their schools and communities. Students need to be adequately prepared for experiential learning. They need to understand the institution or agency with which they'll be engaged and its larger social and political context. Students need to be supervised and provided with regular opportunities to reflect on their experiences. In the course of reflection students should be asked to consider questions such as these:

Richard Niemi and his colleagues answer these questions with "a qualified yes." Their research has led them to conclude that

"Community involvement might increase political knowledge, enhance some participatory skills, and alter certain attitudes of participants…. Yet participation levels vary precisely in ways that concern proponents of community service (e.g. that students who were otherwise less active, who received lower grades, and whose parents were not themselves participants were less likely to be involved). Moreover, presumed effects were apparent only among those who participated regularly and extensively, suggesting the limits of sporadic and poorly organized community service. Thus, while it has considerable potential, community service, as practiced among today's high school students is not a civic education cure-all." 21


Yes, Immanuel Kant was right. The arts of government and education are more difficult than others. But nothing is of greater importance for us as individuals or as a people than that those two arts be practiced well. The century we have just left behind us offers ample evidence of just how much human misery can be wrought when there is malpractice of the arts of education and government.

You and I have not only the opportunity, we have the obligation to use our talents in the art of education to help all our students become knowledgeable and skilled not just in the art of government, but in its more demanding form-the art of self-government.


1. Kant, Immanuel. Kant on Education (Ueber Padagogik) trans. Churton, Annette. Boston: D.C. Heath and Co., 1900, p. 12. back 

2. The Great Legal Philosophers: Selected Readings in Jurisprudence, edited by Morris, Clarence. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1959, p. 238. back 

3. American Federation of Teachers. "AFT Calls for Sweeping Changes in Teacher Training and More Rigorous Requirements for New Teachers," (online) 24 April 2000, back 

4. "States Move to Improve Teacher Pool," Education Week, 14 June 2000, p. 20. back 

5. Center for the Study of Teaching and Policy (1999). Teacher Quality and Student Achievement: A Review of State Policy Evidence, by Darling-Hammond, Linda. back 

6. Ingersoll, R.M. (1998). The Problem of Out of Field Teaching. Phi Delta Kappan 79, 773-776. back 

7. U.S. Department of Education, Office of Educational Research and Improvement. National Center for Education Statistics. NAEP 1998 Civics Report Card for the Nation, NCES 2000-457 by Lutkus, A.D., Weiss, A.R., Campbell, J.R., Mazzeo, J., and Lazer, S. Washington, D.C.: 1999. back 

8. Civic Education Across Countries: Twenty-Four National Case Studies from the IEA Civic Education Project. Edited by Torney-Purta, Judith, Schwille, John, and Amadeo, Jo Ann. The International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement, 1999. back 

9. National Center for Education Statistics. "New National Assessment Reveals Majority of Students Have Basic Knowledge of Civics." Press Release. 18 November 1999. back 

10. National Center for Education Statistics. NAEP 1998 Civics Report Card for the Nation. U.S. Department of Education, Office of Educational Research and Improvement. NCES 2000-457, p.1. back 

11. Ravitch, Diane. "Statement on the NAEP Civics Report Card." Commentary presented at press briefing to release 1998 NAEP Civic Report Card for the Nation. 18 November 1999. U.S. Department of Education, Washington, D.C. back 

12. Quigley, Charles N. "Statement on the NAEP Civics Report Card." Commentary presented at press briefing to release 1998 NAEP Civic Report Card for the Nation. 18 November 1999. U.S. Department of Education, Washington, D.C. back 

13. Dionne, Jr., E. J. "The Civics Deficit." The Washington Post, 30 November 1999, p. A29. back 

14. U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics (2000). Youth Service Learning and Community Service Among 6th through 12th Grade Students in the United States: 1996 and 1999. NCES 2000-028 by Westat, B.K. and Chapman, C. Washington, D.C. back 

15. U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics (1999). "Service Learning and Community Service in K-12 Public Schools." NCES 1999-043. Westat, R.S. and Chapman, C. Washington, D.C. back 

16. Niemi, Richard G., Hepburn, M., and Chapman, C. "Community Service by High School Students: A Cure for Civic Ills?" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association, September 1999. back 

17. "Colleges Target Apathy with Instruction in Citizenship," The Boston Globe, 22 February 2000, sec. B1. See also Battistoni, Richard M. 1997. "Service Learning and Democratic Citizenship." Theory Into Practice 36:150-56., and Battistoni, Richard M., and Hudson, William E., ed. 1997. Experiencing Citizenship: Concepts and Models for Service-Learning in Political Science. Washington, D.C.: American Association for Higher Education. back 

18. Sax, L.J. Astin, A.W., Korn W.S. and Mahoney, K.M. The American Freshman: National Norms for Fall, 1999. Los Angeles, CA, Higher Education Research Institute, UCLA. back 

19. U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics (1997). Student Participation in Community Service Activity, NCES 97-331 by Nolin, M.J., Chaney, B., Chapman, C., and Chandler, K., Project Officer. Washington D.C. back 

20. Niemi, Richard G. op.cit. back 

21. Niemi, Richard G. op.cit. back 

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