Making the Case for Civic Education:
Where We Stand at the End of the 20th Century

Margaret S. Branson

Speech given at the We the People... National Conference of State and District Coordinators
Washington, D.C.
June 1999

A well-known and widely read magazine recently published a critique of education. The opening salvo went like this:

Education reforms are best understood as a concerted attack on the mushier version of the "comprehensive" ideal of the 1960's and 70's. In the name of egalitarianism this held that all pupils, all teachers, and all schools should be treated identically. Any comparisons were invidious.... But the current system has failed....

In response to these problems... education reforms have tried to be much tougher about discriminating between successful and failing schools. Tables of schools based on exam results are published every year. The government has begun to close failing schools and is encouraging private-sector managers to get involved.... There is more of a focus on basic literacy and numeracy.... The introduction of performance-related pay for teachers is part of this trend, but the government should go even further.... The government should continue to insist that schools meet certain basic education targets, and should inspect them, and publish their exam results.... Parents should be given much more choice over where to send their children.... The best mechanism for this would be to attach funding to pupils, not schools, so giving successful schools the money and incentive to expand.

(A) criticism is that this would be socially divisive. The rich would peel off into their own schools, leaving the poor to fail in "sink" schools. But sink schools exist already. The rich already opt out by going private or moving to the suburbs.... School choice would expand opportunity for all. 1 

Interestingly enough this article did not come from an American publication. On the contrary, it is from The Economist, one of Britain's most respected journals, and it is a lament about the current condition of English schools. I began with that excerpt, because we Americans sometimes think that ours is the only developed country in which education is seen as falling short.

Now there is no denying that Americans are disquieted about the quality of public education. A CNN-Gallup Poll released June 9, 1999 reveals that more Americans (some 42%) rated "quality of education in public schools" as the major national issue and the one which for them is top priority in deciding which candidate to support for president. 2  Furthermore, the issue of education significantly outdistanced issues such as cost of health care, crime, social security, the economy, and gun laws. It is interesting to note that the second most worrisome issue identified by Americans in that Gallup Poll was "problems of raising children in today's culture."

There is something paradoxical about the two concerns which Americans judge to be most urgent, because today the "quality of education" all too often is seen as synonymous with scores in mathematics, science, and reading. This is particularly true of the United States Department of Education. One need look no farther than the text of "The Educational Excellence for All Children Act of 1999," the Clinton administration's proposal to reauthorize The Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). 3  The only mention of civic education in that very lengthy proposal is near its end in Title X (Part F). The proposal acknowledges the success of the We the People... program of the Center for Civic Education and urges continued support for the program. Of course, we are appreciative of that recognition, but the fact remains that the Educational Excellence Act gives scant attention to civic education or education for citizenship. And that is so despite the fact that it is civic education which deals directly with the knowledge, skills, and dispositions that are essential, if we are to address "the problems in today's culture" about which the majority of Americans say they are worried.

The anxieties to which Americans give voice are echoed in other nations as well. And civic education in them does not seem to fare much better than it does in the United States. For evidence of those assertions, let's review briefly the just published findings from 24 national case studies from the IEA Civic Education Project. The IEA is the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement. 4  It was founded in 1959 for the purpose of conducting comparative studies focusing on educational policies and practices in various countries and educational systems around the world. These case studies represent Phase I of the IEA study. Phase II, which has just begun, will entail the testing of students aged 14/15 (the age at which compulsory education ends for young people in most countries). Results of that assessment are scheduled to be reported sometime in 2001 or 2002.

One very clear finding of the Phase I-Case Study is that a review and rethinking of civic education is taking place not only in post-communist countries. Review and rethinking also is underway in well-developed and longstanding democracies, including Australia, Canada, England, and the Netherlands. The case studies just completed clearly show that there is a universal or near universal commitment to certain goals or themes. There is agreement that civic education should be:

Despite concurrence on the goals of civic education and despite efforts to effect them, the reality is that no country can claim universal success in formulating programs that achieve these goals for all students. Several reasons for failure to achieve these goals need to be mentioned. First, civic education is not introduced or given sustained attention early enough in students' schooling. Explicit teaching about civic life and politics is apt to take place at or after age 14 in all of the 24 countries, including the United States, that participated in the IEA study. Delay in explicit teaching is usually based on assumptions about readiness rather than on findings from research. Current psychological theories recognize that sometimes instruction leads rather than follows psychological development. Research also shows that the ages from about 8 to 13 may be a period of plasticity in development when teaching about civic life and politics can be quite effective. There also is abundant evidence—as any parent or teacher can testify—that young children and early adolescents are learning powerful lessons throughout the day in extra or co-curricular activities and in informal gatherings with their peers. Young peoples' civic dispositions are being shaped as they encounter their country's civic traditions, adult political culture, the media, and contemporary events. Young people also are affected by their everyday experiences with power and authority, with rules and laws, and with diversity in its many forms. Those attitude-forming experiences need to be discussed and reflected upon under the guidance of qualified civic educators. And research shows that young people not only need but want opportunities to interact with knowledgeable and caring adults who will help them understand society and their role in it.

A second reason that no country has succeeded in realizing the goals of civic education is that it is given insufficient attention, despite the rhetoric and official pronouncements about the need for schools to produce "good citizens." 5  As the IEA study concluded:

Civic education is a low-status subject and curricular aim in most of these countries. Civic goals are thought of as important, but much less critical than goals in subject areas such as science, for example. For very few students is any civics-related subject part of an important exit or entrance examination. Many observers believe that unless civics can be tied to a high status subject, it will receive little support in countries with traditions of subject matter rigor, especially where parents judge the schools on this basis. In some countries, civics- or economics-related topics are an explicit part of the curriculum for only one or two hours per week (often with a long list of pieces of knowledge to be imparted). 6 
Later in this discussion we will return to the subject of assessment and focus specifically on assessment in civics in the United States. But before we do that I'd like to call your attention to a particularly telling nationwide study of American youth aged 15-24-years-old. That study completed in January of this year (1999) was commissioned by the National Association of Secretaries of State (NASS). 7  The study was conducted by the Tarrance Group and Lake, Snell, Perry and Associates, entitled the "New Millennium Project."

The research included both quantitative and qualitative components—a national telephone survey among 1,005 youths and six focus groups divided by education levels and voting history.

Among the key findings of the "New Millennium Project" are these:

While most young people subscribe to abstract statements about the importance of "being an American" (78%) and "being a good American who cares about the good of the country" (65%), the focus groups suggest that youth identify with the specific rights associated with citizenship, but have only vague ideas about the public responsibilities. For example, they articulate a more personalized vision of good citizenship that included volunteering, helping others, and raising children well. In the survey, 94% of all respondents agreed that "the most important thing I can do as a citizen is to help others." Traditional notions of citizenship, which include being politically interested and involved, are much less salient to this generation.

The results of the New Millennium study are not idiosyncratic. They are corroborated by other studies. One of those studies is the nation's oldest and most comprehensive assessment of the attitudes of freshmen at 469 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 1998. 8  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." Only one quarter (25.9%) of entering freshmen believed that "keeping up to date with political affairs is a very important or essential life goal." That figure contrasts sharply with the sizeable majority (58.8%) who held that belief in 1966. Further, only 14% of freshmen frequently discuss politics, barely more than half as many who reported discussing religion (26%).

The academic disengagement of freshmen also has escalated. A record high of almost 40% (39.7%) say they are frequently bored in class. At the same time a record low number of freshmen—less than one third (32.9%), in fact reported studying or doing homework six or more hours per week during their last year in high school. That figure includes studying for all subjects and it amounts to less than one hour per day. Perhaps that explains, in part, the current national preoccupation with assessment not only of students but of teachers as well.

Assessment is the last subject on which I'd like to touch, particularly the assessment of civics and government.

Although the vast majority of teachers and schools have always been responsive in informal ways to parents, students, and the public at large, there now is a new and growing demand for more formal and rigorous responsiveness. That demand is called accountability and its concomitant is assessment. After decades of focusing on "inputs" such as how many books are in the library, the number of computers in the school, or per-pupil expenditures, the spotlight has shifted to "outputs" or measures of student learning. Policymakers everywhere are moving to reward success and punish failure. In some states and school districts student achievement is attributed to the competence of teachers or to the ability of the school to motivate; teachers and schools are rewarded or "sanctioned" accordingly. As Robert F. Elmore of Harvard University recently said "Accountability for student performance is one of the two or three—if not the most—prominent issues in policy at the state and local levels right now." Forty states currently have standards in what are considered the four core subjects: mathematics, science, English, and the social studies. An additional nine states have adopted standards in at least one core subject and are drafting standards in the others.

Efforts to write a single set of standards for the social studies or to construct an assessment for social studies as a whole have been fraught with problems, because it is not a single subject. The social studies is an amalgam embracing "bits and pieces" of many disciplines—geography, economics, political science, anthropology, world history, United States history, civics, government, law, philosophy, sociology, and psychology. Schools and teachers, therefore, often receive large sets of unprioritized social studies standards. One state produced a set of 256 standards for the social studies which its board of education wisely rejected and sent the drafters back to their drawing boards. Attempts to measure all or even the most salient disciplines in a single social studies test also have left almost everyone unsatisfied. Because the scope of such a test is too broad, insufficient data are generated to make the identification of student strengths or weaknesses in any given discipline possible. As a result, some large scale assessments are being devised to measure student achievement in discrete disciplines such as geography, economics, United States history, or civics and government.

Four large scale assessments in the field of civics and government are noteworthy: state assessments which are aligned with standards, the National Assessment of Educational Progress in Civics (NAEP), the General Education Development Tests (GED), and the International Association for the Evaluation of Education Achievement—Civic Education. We've already touched on IEA but we'll have a bit more to say about its relationship to assessments in the United States.

The National Education Goals

Goal 3: Student Achievement and Citizenship

By the year 2000, all students will leave grades 4, 8, and 12 having demonstrated competency over challenging subject matter including English, mathematics, science, foreign languages, civics and government, economics, arts, history, and geography, and every school in America will ensure that all students learn to use their minds well, so they may be prepared for responsible citizenship, further learning, and productive employment in our Nation's modern economy.

All students will be involved in activities that promote and demonstrate...good citizenship, community service, and personal responsibility.

Goal 6: Adult Literacy and Lifelong Learning

By the year 2000, every adult American will be literate and will possess the knowledge and skills necessary to compete in a global economy and exercise the rights and responsibilities of citizenship (emphasis added).

The Educate America Act provided states and some professional organizations with federal funding to develop internationally competitive standards in the nine disciplines named in Goal 3. The Center for Civic Education, a non-profit, non-partisan corporation, was chosen to develop the National Standards for Civics and Government. 9  Those standards have been widely used by states to develop their own frameworks, standards, and assessment programs, because they meet criteria established by specialists in curriculum and assessment. One criterion, for example is that: standards must define content, knowledge, and skills for all students that are explicit, measurable, and show an increasing level of difficulty through the grades. Because the National Standards for Civics and Government satisfy that requirement, as well as other requirements, they have been adopted and/or adapted by many states including Florida, New Mexico, Massachusetts, Tennessee, California, and New York. Tennessee's Secondary Social Studies Framework specifies that

Students will develop both intellectual and participatory skills in the areas of identifying and solving problems; evaluating, taking, and defending positions; monitoring and influencing the political process. The student learnings are organized to address the five standards of the National Standards for Civics and Government, which are posed as questions.
Although the development of state standards and state assessments of learning ideally would proceed in tandem, the fact is that most states have given priority to drafting frameworks and standards. Many states have deferred work on state assessments, but they insist that they are committed to systems of assessment which are aligned with their standards.


In conclusion, there are several things about which we need to remind ourselves. Although research studies and well-designed, large-scale assessments can provide valuable information, the continued vitality of American constitutional democracy depends, in no small measure, on what happens in the nation's classrooms and through programs like We the People... The Citizen and the Constitution and Project Citizen. It is there in the encounters between teachers and students, and among students and their peers, that civic learning actually takes place. A focus on standards and accountability that ignores the processes of teaching and learning will not result in achieving the goals of education that we have set for ourselves as a nation. A recently completed study of students in grades 9 through 12 and their parents drew this significant conclusion:

...what has become clear is that democratic predispositions need to be nurtured—they do not develop so spontaneously that it can be taken for granted that every new generation will be so supportive of America's political and civic traditions and institutions as previous generations.

The knowledge that good citizenship does not just happen but it is something to be developed, combined with growing concern about the future of American democracy, has helped propel the issue of developing good citizens back onto the education agenda.... Schools are being called upon to help instill a sense of civic duty and to provide the intellectual tools necessary for political participation. 13 

You and I not only need to keep the issue of civic education on the public agenda, we need to see that it is given the priority it deserves. "Good citizenship does not just happen."


1. "Education, Education, Education." The Economist, April 30, 1999, p. 20. back 

2. CNN-Gallup Poll. USA Today, June 9, 1999, p. 10A.back 

3. "The Educational Excellence For All Children Act of 1999." Reprinted along with explanatory notes in a "Special Forum Section" in Education Week, June 8, 1999, pp. 27-54.back 

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

5. A preliminary report of a study of civic education by the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs, The University of Texas at Austin, June 1999, provides information about civic education policies and requirements in the 50 states of the United States. The study reveals that over one-fourth of all state constitutions require a system of public instruction because an informed and capable citizenry is vital to the preservation of a free and democratic government. More than one-half of all states have passed statutes explicitly addressing civic education in some form. While all but one state has implemented K-12 content standards in at least one subject area, only three states have created separate state standards devoted solely to civic education. Another 23 states have an explicit section covering civics topics within their social studies standards, while 18 states have civics topics interspersed throughout their social studies standards. Students must take a government or civics course in high school in 29 states.back 

6. Civic Education Across Countries, p. 31.back 

7. New Millennium Project, Part 1: American Youth Attitudes on Politics, Citizenship, Government, and Voting. Lexington, KY: National Association of Secretaries of State, 1999.back 

8. Sax, L.J., Astin, A.W., et al. The American Freshman: National Norms for Fall 1998. Los Angeles: Higher Education Institute, UCLA.back 

9. Center for Civic Education. National Standards for Civics and Government, Calabasas, CA, 1994.back 

10. National Assessment Governing Board. Civics Framework for the 1998 National Assessment of Educational Progress. Washington, DC: National Assessment Governing Board, 1996.back 

11. The Pew Charitable Trusts. "Quality Counts '99: An Education Week/The Pew Charitable Trusts Report on Education in the 50 States." Education Week, January 17, 1999.back 

12. Francis Fukuyama. The Great Disruption: Human Nature and the Reconstitution of the Social Order. New York: The Free Press, 1999, p. 54.back 

13. U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. The Civic Development of 9th through 12th grade Students in the United States: 1996, NCES 1999-131 by Niemi, R.G. and Chapman, C. Project Officer, Chandler, K. Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics, 1999.back 

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