Political polarization and distrust — capped by last year’s riot at the U.S. Capitol — have prompted renewed interest in teaching civics, with educators considering how best to explain the workings of democracy to K-12 students.
For decades, civics has taken a back seat to priorities like math, reading and college preparation, educators say. There are no mandatory federal standards for teaching civics or social studies. Instead, each state has its own standards that reflect its priorities and history. In many school districts, civics is taught only once, often in a semester-long high school class.
However, long before the riot, new guidance on civics education was being developed by a group of more than 300 prominent educators and experts, which is now being piloted in several areas around the country. The effort, known as the Educating for American Democracy initiative, has many educators optimistic that civics will get renewed attention in the coming years.
Many experts also say that parents can help their children learn about civics by taking steps at home to explain news events, facilitate conversations and support the work being done at school.
“How are we to function as a society if people cannot talk through their differences?” says Joseph Kahne, a professor at the University of California–Riverside who studies civics education and its impact on civic engagement. “Schools, while not perfect, historically have been a place where young people can learn how to engage in democracy.”
Increased Interest in Civics
Just as voter turnout has grown in recent years, civics knowledge has also increased, driven by the pandemic, protests over racial injustice and divisive partisan politics.
In 2006, for example, only 33% of American adults could name all three branches of the U.S. government, according to the Annenberg Civics Knowledge Survey. In 2021, that number had grown to 56%.
Thomas Trainor, an eighth grade teacher in Massachusetts who has taught civics for 15 years, says he saw the level of interest and engagement in civics “skyrocket” after the 2016 presidential election.
And then there was Jan. 6.
The riot at the Capitol “simply put on display deep divides we’ve been grappling with as a country,” says Louise Dubé, executive director of iCivics, a civics education organization founded by retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor and a leader of the EAD initiative.
“It made clear the dire state of investment in civic education over several decades,” Dubé says, adding, “what we do know is that there is agreement across the political spectrum that civic education is the best possible solution for creating a shared, common experience and addressing division and discord.”
New Recommendations for Teaching Civics
To advance this idea, the nonpartisan EAD released its Roadmap to Educating for American Democracy last March, a framework for teaching civics and history to K-12 students, including themes, guiding questions and other resources. The effort was primarily funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities and the U.S. Department of Education, and was also supported by private foundations.
Begun in November 2019, the initiative seeks to “improve the teaching and learning of American history and government so that all students gain an appreciation of the workings of the world’s oldest constitutional democracy,” according to a 2019 release.
The guidance is not a curriculum, which would have included specific lesson plans and learning goals. Instead, it provides latitude for states, local school districts and teachers to decide how they want to teach, which respects both teacher agency and local autonomy, Kahne says.
The framework is organized into four grade bands — K-2, 3-5, 6-8 and 9-12 — which means students would encounter civics regularly throughout their school career. It also recommends that students complete more than one civics project. The teaching approach is inquiry-based, meaning teachers ask questions and encourage discussion, rather than simply promoting the rote memorization of facts.
And the roadmap acknowledges that there aren’t always easy answers, identifying five “design challenges” educators may need to grapple with. For example, “Civic Honesty, Reflective Patriotism” asks teachers to consider how to “offer an account of U.S. constitutional democracy that is simultaneously honest about the wrongs of the past without falling into cynicism, and appreciative of the founding of the United States without tipping into adulation?”
Educators Are Optimistic
However lofty the original ambitions, the roadmap was unveiled under fraught circumstances, just weeks after the Jan. 6 riot, which resulted in the second impeachment (though not conviction) of former President Donald Trump; more than 700 criminal prosecutions; and a congressional investigation that is still ongoing.
Yet many experts are optimistic about the possibilities. While it is too early to see results, the new guidance was implemented last fall in at least five locations around the country, including New York City Public Schools and in several pilot initiatives in Arizona, Dubé says.
There are also promising results from at least one precursor. The Democratic Knowledge Project, housed at Harvard University, created an eighth grade civics curriculum that has been piloted across Massachusetts since 2019. Trainor, who helped implement the curriculum in Cambridge Public Schools, says the capstone unit, a student-led civics project requiring students to select an issue, take steps to solve it, and then present their work, generated a great deal of positive buzz at his school.
“The level of engagement and excitement around that unit and many of the other lessons throughout the curriculum is infectious,” Trainor says.
Harvard University professor Danielle Allen, a lead author of the new framework and a candidate for governor in Massachusetts, says she is hopeful it will be widely adopted because of the low-key presentation. She likened it to “an invitation to the nation’s community of educators.”
“It is in essence a letter from one large group of colleagues to all the rest of their colleagues saying, ‘Here’s what we recommend,'” Allen wrote in an email.
Dubé also expressed optimism about the roadmap because flexibility for state and local interpretation may encourage engagement. The guidance, she says, has a “firm foundation, reflecting the work of hundreds of individuals representing a diversity of viewpoints, philosophies and demographics who were able to reach an unprecedented level of consensus.”
Teaching Civics at Home
Education experts also say that parents should play a role in civics education, helping their children learn how democracy works.
“Strengthening democracy is all of our work, and we should do it together,” Dubé says. “It is not just the work of schools.”
Dubé, Kahne and Trainor suggest several things parents can do to raise civic-minded children:
— Talk to your child on a regular basis about problems that they notice and ask them what they and others can do to help solve them. Set a good example by volunteering to help (for example, at a food bank), and bring your child along.
— Stress the importance of supporting democratic institutions, like a free press, and practices, like ensuring that everyone who is eligible can vote. Do so regardless of whether those institutions and practices help your side in a political contest.
— Analyze the news together and emphasize what is sometimes called “information literacy,” teaching your child to recognize and guard against their own biases and to find reliable sources of information.
“Make sure to get a variety of perspectives when looking at issues and make sure to analyze the sources of the information,” Trainor says. “Many people interact with information that only confirms their own beliefs and values, even if that information is totally inaccurate.”
Searching for a school? Explore our K-12 directory.
More from U.S. News