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Americans’ grasp on civic knowledge is shaky at best, study finds

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The fundamentals of American civics are not dispensable frills. Citizens who don’t understand how laws are made or which powers the president wields can’t fully participate in our democracy. While the amount of information and commentary about public affairs has exploded, that’s no substitute for formal education about government and civic life.

In a recent survey released by the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, 35 percent of respondents were unable to name even one branch of the federal government; only 36 percent could identify all three. Nearly three out of four Americans didn’t know that it takes a two-thirds vote in each house of Congress to override a presidential veto. Asked which parties control the Senate and House of Representatives, only 38 percent of respondents answered correctly. And one-fifth of the public believes that when the Supreme Court decides a case by a 5-4 majority, the decision is sent to Congress for reconsideration.

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Alarmed by such findings, the Annenberg Center and 25 other organizations have formed the Civics Renewal Network. The goal of the coalition, which includes the Library of Congress, the National Archives, the Newseum, the Edward Kennedy Institute for the US Senate, and the iCivics project headed by Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, is to raise the profile of civics education. Its website is a treasure trove for teachers and students, with nearly 1,000 high-quality educational resources covering a rich array of civics-related topics.

The need for renewed emphasis on civics in US schools is pressing. A national survey in 2012 from Xavier University found that one in three native-born Americans would fail the civics portion of the naturalization test for immigrants. (By contrast, 97 percent of those applying for citizenship pass.)

Because of budget cuts, the Obama administration last year indefinitely suspended the National Assessment of Educational Progress exams in civics, US history, and geography for fourth- and 12th-graders. Taking their place in the NAEP lineup is a new test in technology and engineering literacy. Those are vital subjects, but students also need a basic grounding in how their government operates. The Civics Renewal Network’s efforts to spread that knowledge are not just admirable, but more timely than ever.

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