This week marks NEA’s 2013 American Education Week. It may seem an unlikely topic for us to be talking about, but one of the most important pillars of American education is, and always has been, civic learning. In fact, preparing children to be engaged members of their communities through things like voting was one of the original purposes of public schools. Furthermore, a recent study by CIRCLE found that youth who have civic learning incorporated in their curricula are more likely to stay on track academically by staying in school and preparing for college among other things. And so during this week, when the nation takes time to thank the teachers and employees of our nation’s schools and examine our education system, it is important that we take time to also review the state of civic education in the United States.
While the inclusion of civics education is present, if not mandatory, in many states, research by CIRCLE and the Department of Education has shown that students are increasingly failing to demonstrate knowledge of the democratic process and that schools are beginning to de-prioritize the teaching of this information. According to CIRCLE, only a quarter of young people scored “proficient” on a national assessment of civic education. That same assessment demonstrated that there has also been a marked decline in student performance since 2006.
These statistics are even more frightening given the fact that research has shown that effective civic education makes students more likely to vote, discuss politics at home, volunteer, and work on community issues. It has also affected student confidence in their ability to speak out publicly and with their elected representatives.
In response to the gap between the demonstrated benefits of civic education and the actual presence of the topic in schools, the Department of Education issued a road map and call to action. This document outlines a commitment on the part of the Department to the crusade for stronger civic education and enumerates various steps the Department will take to assist schools and programs that are working toward the same goal. These steps include further research on effective strategies for civic education, requesting more civic education work from grant applications, and highlighting and promoting positive examples of civic education at the national and local levels. To the end of that final strategy, the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools has determined five simple, effective ways to ensure that the democratic process is not only taught in schools but absorbed by students. These include classroom instruction, in school discussion of current events and issues, civic and community based service learning opportunities, civic and community based extracurricular activities, student participation in school governance, and simulations of democratic processes. Essentially, it’s not just telling students how the system works; it’s getting students involved in that system from an early age.
Fair Elections Legal Network and Campus Vote Project understand the need for educated voters. A large part of the work we, and many other organizations, do is make sure voters have the information they need to register and cast a ballot. Learning about this process early on helps make the act of voting routine. Integrating civics into the classroom give students tools to take with them after they graduate and move on to college or a career, often without the helpful reminders from parents.
As Circle also outlined in their recent report, civic education must go beyond the classroom. Everyone, from policy makers, schools, parents, and communities, plays a part in developing young people as citizens, and only by working together can we make progress in this area. We are working to do our part and educate audiences like students about voting.
During this American Education Week, we stand with the rest of the country in thanking all those who dedicate their lives to education our nation’s children and hope that they soon have the support and resources they need to make sure those children are democratically engaged and invested in shaping their own futures.