Alumni | General Education

Civics education in schools needs reboot

COLUMBUS DISPATCH   |  November 7, 2017 by Jim Simon

How can we improve “civics literacy” in America?

There are “loud” crises, such as wars and economic recessions, and there are “quiet” ones, such as declines in voting rates.

For several decades, what Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor called a “quiet crisis” has grown unabated until fairly recently in the United States. That crisis is the decline in civic literacy, or basic knowledge of how our government works.

Until the 1960s, American high schools typically had as many as three courses in civics and government in their curricula. Over time, those courses generally disappeared in favor of “core subjects” under the standardized-test regime of the “No Child Left Behind” Act. After years of reporting poor student scores, the National Assessment of Educational Progress suspended the civics portion of its exam for schools.

The lack of basic civic knowledge has been reflected in the informal person-in-the-street questions posed by comedian Jay Leno for years on “The Tonight Show” to the results of a 2017 poll conducted by the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania.

Among the Annenberg findings: Only 26 percent of American adults can name all three branches of government, and 37 percent of American adults can’t name any of the rights guaranteed under the First Amendment.

The decline in civics literacy cuts across all segments of society. In a 2015 study by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, roughly half of seniors at 55 top-ranked institutions could not correctly state the length of terms of members of the Senate or the House of Representatives.

Ironically, at a time when immigration in America is being restricted, recent immigrants who have become naturalized U.S. citizens by passing the required citizenship test are likely far more knowledgeable about the federal system of government than the majority of American students.

If ever there was a nonpartisan cause to unite the political parties, it should be the need for Americans to be more informed as voters. In addition to the efforts of good-government groups such as the League of Women Voters to foster greater awareness of issues, a national effort is required to embed basic knowledge of American government in our schools.

The good news is that such an effort is growing at the state level. An initiative pushed by the Arizona-based Joe Foss Institute to secure legislation in all 50 states requiring high-school graduates to have passed a citizenship test before receiving a diploma has gained traction. At last count, 23 states were on board. However, in an environment where what’s tested is what gets funded, civics and/or world history could be eliminated as required courses.

In conversations with teachers, parents, and others regarding how we can improve knowledge of civics, the following suggestions emerged: Make civics a mandatory course in the core curriculum at all high schools.

Emphasize interactive learning, not just rote memorization of facts. Teachers and students could collaborate to develop social-media-based program elements focused on strengthening connections to elected and appointed officials. More ideas can be found at Expand the scope and depth of the current 100 question-based U.S. citizenship test to make it more content-rich. Form a national group composed not only of school officials but also students, legislators and other interested parties to design a more-rigorous test. As a case on gerrymandering is being considered by the Supreme Court, perhaps questions on that topic and on campaign financing could be added to the test.

In lower grades, embed basic elements of American citizenship into the curriculum. Encourage teachers and parents to have students see civics in action, by taking students to local council meetings, statehouse legislative sessions, etc. Teachers could request annual visits by local elected representatives to speak at classrooms where civics courses are being taught.

Mock trials could be staged in classrooms to demonstrate the role of the judiciary. Promote progress of students’ understanding of civics. Although periodic national assessments of progress in civics are included in “The Nation’s Report Card” that is developed every two years by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a more-regular focus on civics is needed.

The media can help lead the effort to promote progress. As midterm elections loom in 2018 and at a time when many Americans are turned off to politics as usual, there’s a real danger that younger generations in particular either will not vote in future elections and/or will make ill-informed choices due to their lack of knowledge of civics.

We need to take “citizen-making” as seriously as we take athletics and other activities in high schools. Informed, engaged citizens make for a healthier democracy, and it’s time we do a better job of helping all students prepare for their critical role in running our republic.  


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