By Karen Shanton
Coke or Pepsi. Red Sox or Yankees. Dunkin' Donuts or Starbucks. Americans may not all agree about much. According to a 2004 study conducted by NCSL's Trust for Representative Democracy, the Center for Civic Education, the Center on Congress at Indiana University and the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools, however, there's at least one area of near-consensus: the importance of civic education. From Classroom to Citizen: American Attitudes on Civic Education found that a whopping 91% of Americans consider civic education programs in public schools important for maintaining a healthy democracy.
To that end, a recent report from the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning & Engagement (CIRCLE) has both good and bad news. The good news is that all 50 states (and the District of Columbia) require some civics education. Less promising is the finding that just eight states have a standardized, state-designed civics/American history test and only two of them – Ohio and Virginia – require students to pass the test to graduate from high school.
Classroom hours and student study time are limited resources and, as CIRCLE Director Peter Levine points out, "both students and teachers know that they must focus on what is tested." Without 'high-stakes' tests (tests that are required for graduation), subjects drop to the bottom of the priority list.
Of course, testing alone is not enough to create an educated citizenry. The Trust for Representative Democracy, CIRCLE and the U.S. Department of Education all argue for hands-on training in civic skills – as promoted by programs like We the People, Project Citizen and Legislative Youth Advisory Councils and resources like the American Democracy Game and iCivics – alongside instruction in the factual nuts and bolts of government. Still, ensuring that civics is viewed as a priority is an important first step toward a more civics-savvy, politically-engaged citizenry.
Karen Shanton is a public fellow of the American Council of Learned Societies on assignment to NCSL for two years.