"It cannot be doubted that in the United States the instruction of the people powerfully contributes to the support of the democratic republic." Alexis de Tocqueville 1
While much has changed in this country since the initial publication of Democracy in America, Tocqueville's words ring just as true today as they did in 1835. We cannot expect young people automatically to become citizens in a well-functioning democratic system, nor should we overlook the powerful relationship between effective, knowledgeable and engaged citizens and the vitality of democratic life. From the guidelines set forth in state mandates to service-learning graduation requirements, this page lays out a brief outline of practices and policies and the extent to which civic education is emphasized in the school curriculum. For a more detailed list of state-by-state information, please see our In The States page for more information.
Beyond general instruction, a number of states have enacted laws that require some form of assessment. Illinois law states that "American patriotism and the principles of representative government, as enunciated in the American Declaration of Independence, the Constitution of the United States of America and the Constitution of the State of Illinois, and the proper use and display of the American flag shall be taught No student shall receive a certificate of graduation without passing a satisfactory examination upon such subjects."4
While 31 states currently test civics topics, only Missouri, Ohio and Utah have a separate test on civics topics.5
However, there is great variation in the extent and quality of state standards. In Making Standards Matter, the American Federation of Teachers found that while standards continue to improve in the states, most continue to have difficulty in setting clear and specific standards in social studies as compared to other core subjects such as math and science. The AFT specifically recommends: "Social studies standards need to be focused and explicit about the US and world history students should learn at each of the three educational levels."7 The Policy Research Project on Civic Education Policies and Practices found that on average civics content in states' social studies standards overemphasize lower-order thinking of identifying and describing positions, stating that "civic statements requiring students to evaluate, take, and defend positions-the highest-order level of thinking-are the least prevalent in most state standards."8
The NAEP Civics Framework
Developing students' civic knowledge, skills and dispositions requires curriculum that is based not only on memorization and description, but also on content that poses important questions and explores fundamental themes to constitutional democracy. According to the National Commission on the High School Senior Year:
However, a number of groups are launching promising initiatives. The Center for Civic Education's Campaign to Promote Civic Education is a fifty-state effort conducted by concerned citizens and organizations within each state to bring about the appropriate changes in the educational policies of states and school districts. In Idaho, the Campaign has worked with the State Action Committee to survey the state's social studies offerings and has drafted a revised curriculum, which "heightens attention to the roles and responsibilities of democratic citizens."13 In Mississippi, the State Action Committee has formed a "Learn to Lead Task Force" where experienced teachers serve as mentors for those less experienced and has approached state lawmakers with model legislation designed to improve Mississippi's social studies standards and to strengthen civic education.14
Service Learning: Definitions
A number of states have created service-learning programs. Maryland, Vermont and the District of Columbia currently require community service programs and eight other states have enacted voluntary programs.17
After assessing state education policies and practices the Policy Research Project on Civic Education Policies and Practices concludes: "state education policies and school district practices often fail to affirm the importance of civic education directly and continuously throughout grades K-12. These policies and practices often take the civic education of American youth for granted, assuming that civic education will occur indirectly in the study of other disciplines, as a general outcome of the process of schooling, and in other organizations of society."18
However, not all is lost as a number of initiatives are taking place across the country and a movement has begun to increase focus on the importance of civic education. To become a part of this movement please go to our Join Us page.
--Amber Wichowsky (with Peter Levine)
1. Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, vol. 1, pg. 317.
2. Policy Research Project on Civic Education Policies and Practices. The Civic Education of American Youth: From State Policies to School District Practices. Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs. Policy Research Project Report, no. 133, 1999.
4. California Education Code, sec. 233.5(a) from LBJ document
5. Illinois Statutes, ch. 105, sec. 5/27-3 from LBJ document
7. AFT, Making Standards Matter, 1999 at http://www.aft.org/edissues/standards99/
8. Policy Research Project, p. xviii
9. NAEP Civics Assessment Governing Board. Civics Framework for the 1998 National Assessment Educational Progress. US Department of Education, 1998.
10. NAEP, p. vi
11. National Commission on the High School Senior Year, The Lost Opportunity of Senior Year: Finding a Better Way, January 2001.
12. Policy Research Project. [the states are: Hawaii, Illinois, Maine, North Dakota (civics); Hawaii, Kansas, Maryland, Maine, Minnesota, Montana, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas (government)]
13. Branson, Margaret, Content That Counts: Educating for Informed, Effective, and Responsible Citizenship at http://www.civiced.org/articles_branson_ncss2001.html, pg. 13.
15. Billig, Shelley H. Research on K-12 School-Based Service-Learning: the evidence builds. Phi Delta Kappan. May 2000: 658-664.
16. Astin, Alexander et al. How Service Learning Affects Students. UCLA
Service-Learning Clearinghouse Project. Higher Education Research Institute.
University of California, Los Angeles: January 2000.
17. Policy Research Project. [The 8 states are: Arkansas, Colorado, Connecticut, Hawaii, Indiana, Montana, Ohio and South Carolina]
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