THESE DAYS, American schools are focused on two big “C’s,” college and career readiness.
Many believe we’re neglecting a third “C:” citizenship.
Today, only eight states require that civics be taught at all. In 2013, the National Assessment of Education Progress suspended the civics portion of its exam, after reporting years of dismal student scores.
Civics wasn’t always so widely disregarded; past education pioneers, from the “settlement house” leaders in the late 1800s to John Dewey in the 20th century, believed a main goal of school was to prepare the next generation to engage actively in democracy.
But so far, the most widespread idea for reversing course has been . . . another test. In January, Arizona became the first state to require all high school students to pass a US citizenship test by correctly answering 60 of 100 multiple-choice questions. North Dakota, South Dakota, and Utah soon followed suit, and more than a dozen state legislatures are considering similar laws. Some organizations are angling to get all 50 states onboard before the 250th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence in 2026.
These new measures are certainly a start. But we should be more ambitious. If we want our students to become engaged citizens, we must teach them to do more than answer multiple-choice questions.
At its best, civic education is personal, timely, and empowering.
Generation Citizen, a nonprofit that advocates for civic education, has partnered with schools to run innovative programs tied to local issues. The group encouraged ninth graders in Malden to successfully lobby their mayor to build the city’s first teen center in 2012, in response to local crime and the lack of safe spaces for young people. After the murder of a fellow student in San Francisco, eighth graders collaborated with the school board commissioner to craft an antiviolence resolution, testified before the superintendent, and helped get the resolution passed.
At Democracy Prep Public Schools, a growing charter school network, civics is an integral curriculum component starting in kindergarten. In sixth grade, students fan out into the community to run get-out-the-vote campaigns. By senior year, these same students embark on a year-long “change the world project,” on a community issue they feel passionately about, by conducting research and proposing realistic solutions.
A recent senior, Ana Enriquez, decided to design a Foster Care Student Empowerment program, drawing on her own experience of living in foster care. She hoped the program could help foster kids share their stories and resources, and learn to advocate for themselves. “Social change,” Ana confidently declared in a 2012 TEDx talk, “starts with a single story, a single choice, or a single voice, like mine.”
This kind of civics education — palpably relevant and intimately local — changes lives.
Some might worry that requiring engaging civics classes would burden teachers already overwhelmed by Common Core or state standards. In fact, teaching civics is a great way to teach students explicit standards: how to research an issue, to work collaboratively, to think from multiple perspectives, and to write persuasive arguments.
What will it take to ensure that students can participate in their local communities and in our national democracy? Appropriately, it will take a village:
State legislatures should not simply require civics tests, but should create incentives, through seed grants and competitions, for schools to create active civics programs.
Foundations should seek out the best civics curricula, projects, and practices across the country, and make them easily accessible.
New charter schools — and possibly all schools — should be required to add civics as a key component of their curricula, and support teachers with training and professional development.
And, most important, teachers will need to develop closer connections with their communities in order to be able to guide their students in tackling real-world challenges.
If we are serious about preparing the next generation, we have a collective responsibility to empower all students with the skills to engage in civic life — and opportunities to make change.
Jessica Lander is a graduate student at the Harvard School of Education.