How to Reboot Civics Education

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Too many Americans are ignorant about their democracy. Former Justice Sandra Day O’Connor and Education Secretary Arne Duncan on O’Connor’s new online program to change that, iCivics.

By Arne Duncan and Sandra Day O’Connor

As families gather to celebrate Independence Day, it is time to rethink the notion that civics instruction is less than vital in the global economy of the 21st century. If you want to succeed, the message seems to be: Take advanced science and math classes, but don’t worry about those civics classes. In a time of texts and tweets, and the instant democracy of the Web, civics instruction seems as antiquated to some students as studying the Dewey Decimal system.

The education historian Lawrence Cremin once observed that educators often follow the principle of “when in doubt, leave it out.” But we believe it is a great mistake to push civics to the sideline in schools. From the dramatic uprisings for democracy in the Mideast to the tragic shootings in Tucson at a Congress on Your Corner event, Americans have been reminded once again that freedom matters—and that informed citizens are the lifeblood of democracy. Civics education is not only about knowing your rights but also knowing your responsibilities. We the People must continue to safeguard the principles of democracy to perfect the union.

Unfortunately, a staggering number of Americans today know dismayingly little about the basic history and traditions of our democracy. Earlier this spring, the government released the results of the 2010 National Assessment of Educational Progress assessment in civics. It shows that while fourth graders have modestly improved their civics knowledge and skills, 12th graders—the students now poised to become voters—have even less civics knowledge and skills than their peers did in 2006.

Nationwide, more than a third of all high school seniors today lack even basic civics knowledge and skills. High school seniors that score below the basic level cannot, for example, describe the structure and functions of American government or identify an activity that is a part of civic life. This civics- knowledge dearth is even more acute among Hispanic and black high school seniors. Half of Hispanic 12th graders and more than 60 percent of black 12th graders lack basic civics knowledge and skills.

Ill-informed high school students soon become ill-informed citizens. Less than half of Americans today can name all three branches of government, yet three in four can name all of the Three Stooges. Less than half of the public can name a single Supreme Court justice. But more than 80 percent of Americans know Michael Jackson sang “Beat It” and “Billie Jean.”

Not surprisingly, civic ignorance has current consequences. In February, a Kaiser Family Foundation poll found that nearly half of the public was either unsure if the health-care law was still the law of the land or mistakenly believed it had been repealed.

Students scored much higher on the 2010 NAEP assessment if they had taken civics and government classes. Yet while civics education continues to make a difference, it is also the case that civics classes need to become far more rigorous and relevant.

Civic knowledge is not inherited through the gene pool. It is learned—at school, and at the dinner table. And, too often, our schools are doing a poor job of transmitting civic knowledge. It’s no secret that many young people find civics and government instruction to be outdated and dull.

Inside and outside the classroom, civics education needs to become more engaging and interactive. Twenty-first century civics education must not only be more hands-on, it also must meet students where they are—and where they are is online.

Thankfully, the Internet can be leveraged to update civics education in the digital age. At its best, the web is much more than just a source of information—it can be a powerful platform for students to exchange and debate ideas about what’s going on in their communities. And it is a vital vehicle for organizing political activities and finding government assistance.

A number of organizations are leading the way to producing the next generation of civics instruction. iCivics, founded by Justice O’Connor, offers web-based education projects and an array of interactive games and activities that students can use in class or at home. Students can assume the role of a Supreme Court justice and help decide a school dress-code case. Or they might learn how a new immigrant becomes a U.S. citizen by guiding them through the naturalization process. iCivics also provides outlets for students to engage in real-world civics efforts and support community projects founded by their peers from across the country.

Students continue to need opportunities to learn and experience civics in their offline communities as well. When Education Secretary Arne Duncan was CEO of the Chicago Public Schools, he worked closely with the Mikva Challenge, which seeks to move beyond your grandmother’s civics to what it calls “action civics.”

Unlike most traditional curriculum, the Mikva Challenge teaches civics not only through classroom instruction, but through experiential involvement. They place high school students in Chicago polling places, have them volunteer in political campaigns, host candidate forums, and advocate on student issues with local politicians. Students learn a timeless lesson: Civics prepares them to participate in collective action with a public end.

While civics education needs to be reinvigorated and updated, its mission remains largely unchanged.
The founders, from George Washington to Thomas Jefferson, understood that informed citizens were a bulwark against tyranny and vital to a functioning democracy. When the founding fathers exited Independence Hall after drafting the Constitution, a woman asked Benjamin Franklin, “What have we got—a republic or a monarchy?” “A republic,” Franklin replied, “if you can keep it.”

More than a half-century later, Abraham Lincoln observed that education was “the most important subject which we as
a people can be engaged in.” It was vital, Lincoln believed, that every citizen should develop an appreciation of “the value of our free institutions.”

Civics education has thus long been the great leveler, the foundation that ensures that all Americans have the tools they need to participate. Horace Mann, who fathered the Common School movement that created the nation’s public school system, believed that leadership and political participation were not to be reserved based on wealth, parentage, or rank. “Equal educational privileges,” Mann presciently wrote in 1841, were greater than “all others means ever devised . . . to approximate the idea of a Republican government.”

As a consequence, Mann’s common schools offered lessons on the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and American history. If each citizen was expected to participate “in the power of governing others,” Mann said, “it is an essential preliminary that he should be imbued with a feeling for the wants, and a sense of the rights, of those whom he is to govern.”

When done well, civics education in fact equips students with the very skills they need to succeed in the 21st century—the ability to communicate effectively, to work collectively, to hone critical questions, and to appreciate diversity. As the education professor Tony Wagner has pointed out, there is a happy “convergence between the skills most needed in the global knowledge economy and those most needed to keep our democracy safe and vibrant.”

In the knowledge economy, few question the fact that math, reading, writing, and science are vital components of a good education. But a world-class education requires a well-rounded curriculum. Civics learning is essential to ensuring that future generations will keep our republic and nourish the freedoms to help America move forward. In 2011, a strong foundation in civics is not a luxury but a necessity.