Strategy 6 Inspire a Culture of Commitment to American Constitutional Democracy and One Another

Invest in Civic Education

Strategy 6
Inspire a Culture of Commitment to American Constitutional Democracy and One Another

Recommendation 6.5

Invest in civic educators and civic education for all ages and in all communities through curricula, ongoing program evaluations, professional development for teachers, and a federal award program that recognizes civic-learning achievements. These measures should encompass lifelong (K–12 and adult) civic-learning experiences with the full community in mind.

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A lack of civic knowledge

A key challenge to the practice of democratic citizenship today is a lack of civic knowledge and education.

From understanding the rules of public meetings to learning how to make policy changes happen, being informed about our current affairs and knowing how government works are central aspects of the practice of democratic citizenship.

In the United States today, not only is there a general lack of civic education, but there are no national standards for this type of curriculum. The civic education that does exist is geared mainly toward K-12 students rather than lifelong learning.

Reinvigorating civic education

As a nation, we must do more to educate individuals of all ages about how to become empowered citizens.

Recent legislation in five states is reinvigorating civic education in K–12 classrooms and among young adults. The new civics curricula do more than teach how a bill becomes a law; they integrate core civic knowledge with hands-on experience in democracy itself through programs that include service learning, student government, debate training, and participatory budgeting.

The most promising efforts should be funded and scaled by investing in civic education programs and professional development opportunities for educators. Consistent evaluation programs—adopted as state standards across the United States—will help us establish best practices, and state and federal award programs will recognize and motivate civic-learning achievements for students and schools.

American adults would also benefit from improved access to civic education, so educational opportunities should be extended beyond the K-12 classroom. Hosted in spaces such as public libraries, community colleges, universities, and community foundations, civic education programs can help American adults of all backgrounds navigate the political system, whether they are new to the country, new to a state, or simply need refreshing.  These programs could help adults evaluate different media sources, learn to debate and discuss contentious issues, and nurture the spiritual, moral, and intellectual foundations of democracy.

“We’re not really educated in our school systems, and in other community aspects about what it is to be engaged in democracy, and what democracy even means in more than just theory.”
—Charlotte, North Carolina
“Democratic citizenship means being able to understand how you could utilize your power as a citizen.  And I will say, the majority of Americans do not understand this political structure.”
—St. Paul, Minnesota
“I think our founders understood that if we were going to be a democratic republic and, you know, the people were going to have self-government, then we had to have educated people; we had to have all this instruction going on that we’re all sitting here saying isn’t happening to the level it needs to happen”
—Jackson, Mississippi

Numerous examples illustrate the benefits of improved civic education.

America from Scratch: America from Scratch is a project by PBS Twin Cities that explores what the United States would be like if we certain fundamental decisions were not taken. What if the United States was founded today, rather than 250 years ago?  What if the voting age were lowered to 12? This video series was created to be part of a civic education curriculum to engage the most important issues of the day, and to encourage critical thinking and promote civic engagement among students.

Sandra Day O’Connor Civic Education Act: After years of underperformance on civics assessments, Florida passed the Sandra Day O’Connor Civic Education Act in 2010. The Act appropriated funds for civic education, training and program evaluation; mandated that civic education begin in elementary school; and required all middle schoolers to complete a course dedicated to civics. In addition, the Act required that beginning in 2014 students take a civics exam that would “determine 30 [percent] of students’ course grades and [affect] teachers’ evaluations and school assessment.”  Students are taught civics through simulations, games, current events, mock trials, community engagement and service, and more These measures seem to be working well to increase civic knowledge and performance amongst young Floridians:  

  • The percentage of 7th graders achieving a passing score has risen from 61 percent in 2014 to 70 percent in 2017.  
  • Teachers who took advantage of professional development opportunities saw their students perform better on the state exam. 

Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School: An example of effective civic education can be seen in the students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. After the tragic mass shooting in 2018, these students harnessed their skills to become engaged citizens and participate in civil society through coordinated activism against gun violence. These students had been beneficiaries of a school system that produced young people knowledgeable in civics. The middle school that feeds into Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School had a passing rate of 86 percent in 2017 compared with the statewide average—70 percent.

Champions

CivXNow and Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation are committed to working to implement this recommendation in order to help reinvent American democracy for the 21st century.

Founded in 2018, CivXNow is a trans-partisan coalition of over 120 national organizations that have committed to drive policies and investments in K-12 civic education to fuel our constitutional democracy. It seeks to ensure that every student receives an excellent civic education that prepares and engages them in civic life.

The Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation identifies and develops the nation’s best minds to meet its most critical challenges. The Foundation supports its Fellows as the next generation of leaders shaping American society.

See the full list of Champions for Our Common Purpose.

In order to implement Recommendation 6.5 by 2026, the Commission proposes the following milestones to complete by year-end of:

2021

  • Establish baseline of public and private investment in civic educators and civic education
  • Establish a working group to develop and employ new high-quality measures of students’ abilities related to key civic priorities (such as abilities to assess the credibility of online content or abilities to deliver a compelling group presentation) to be used in program evaluation and student assessment

2024

  • Pass federal legislation creating competitive civic education grants; create a national award program to recognize civic learning achievements

2026

  • Increase public and private investment in civic educators and civic education by 100%