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A Call to Arms for Civics Education

A new report is the latest to sound the alarm about the consequences of American students' poor civics knowledge, and faulting not only the thin diet served up in schools but also the lack of federal, state, and philanthropic investments in civics, compared to other topics.

In essence, it says, today's young people are disengaged from the civic process, voting in record low rates in 2014. And with Americans expressing deep distrust in the federal government and in their fellow citizens, the pillars of the country's democracy are being undermined, it warns.

"When distrust for major institutions combines with distrust for other citizens, the result is declining support for democracy itself," says the call to arms, which was written by two scholars at a special center at the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life at Tufts University.

Its solution? Really making civics education a priority, not just through traditional courses, but also by making sure those courses facilitate class discussion on "current, controversial issues," student-led voluntary associations, simulations of adult civic roles (think Model United Nations, for instance) and service learning or "action civics," wherein they try to address problems in their own communities through civic channels.

The report's release coincides with a convening of civics advocates today at the Newseum in downtown Washington. It retreads a lot of the factors that have played into the current state of civic participation, including the decline in religious attendance and union membership—two civic associations that shaped much of 20th century political life—and the decline in daily newspaper readership even as misleading news websites and outright propaganda proliferate on social media.

What might a good place for policymakers to start improving their civics education policy? Florida is worth a gander. The Sunshine State passed a civics education act in 2010, requiring a middle school civics course and exam, which the state supplemented by funding matching curriculum and professional development. Since then, scores on the 7th grade exam have risen from about 61 percent to 70 percent, and many teachers use materials and supports developed by the Florida Joint Center for Citizenship, and by iCivics, an online game-based curriculum developed by a nonprofit started by former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor.

And most helpful for policymakers, teachers, and journalists, the report contains an extensive appendix on states' civic education policies, including the year it adopted its current civics standards and when they're up for renewal. And, notably, the writers found that only 10 states included improvements to social studies or civics in their plans to implement the federal Every Student Succeeds Act.

The convening today was sponsored by Carnegie Corporation of New York and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, which help underwrite coverage of school innovation and deeper learning, respectively, in Education Week. The newspaper retains sole editorial control.


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