The Role of Civic Education
Margaret Stimmann Branson
Associate Director, Center for Civic Education
Charles N. Quigley
Executive Director, Center for Civic Education
TABLE OF CONTENTS
II. WHAT IS CIVIC EDUCATION?
III. WHAT ARE THE ESSENTIAL COMPONENTS OF A GOOD CIVIC EDUCATION?
• CIVIC KNOWLEDGE
• CIVIC SKILLS: INTELLECTUAL AND
• CIVIC DISPOSITIONS: ESSENTIAL TRAITS
OF PRIVATE AND PUBLIC CHARACTER
IV. WHERE AND HOW DOES CIVIC EDUCATION TAKE
• FORMAL INSTRUCTION
• THE INFORMAL CURRICULUM
V. WHAT EVIDENCE IS THERE OF THE NEED TO
IMPROVE CIVIC EDUCATION?
VI. WHAT IS THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN CIVIC
EDUCATION AND CHARACTER EDUCATION?
VII. POLICY RECOMMENDATIONS
THE ROLE OF CIVIC EDUCATION
Margaret S. Branson, Associate Director
Center for Civic Education
Charles N. Quigley, Executive Director,
Center for Civic Education
Societies have long had an interest in the ways in which their young are prepared for
citizenship and in how they learn to take part in civic life. Today that interest might better be
described as a concern in fact as a growing concern, particularly in democratic societies. There
is evidence aplenty that no country, including our own United States, has achieved the level of
understanding and acceptance of the rights and responsibilities among the totality of its citizens
that is required for the maintenance and improvement of any constitutional democracy.
In the past decade we have witnessed dramatic demands for freedom on the part of peoples
from Asia to Africa and from Central and Eastern Europe to Latin America. And as we have seen
one totalitarian or authoritarian regime after another toppled and fledgling democratic
governments replace them, we may have become too optimistic about the future of democracy.
We also may have become too complacent, too sure of democracy's robustness or of its long term
viability. History, however, teaches us that few countries have sustained democratic governments
for prolonged periods, a lesson which we as Americans are sometimes inclined to forget.
Americans, of course, should take pride and confidence from the fact that they live in the world's
oldest constitutional democracy and that the philosophical foundations underlying their political
institutions serve as a model for aspiring peoples around the world. The "shot heard 'round the
world" two centuries ago at the opening of the American Revolution continues to resound today,
and it should remind Americans that free institutions are among humanity's highest achievements
and worthy of their full energies and earnest devotion to preserve.
Americans also should realize that civic education is essential to sustain our constitutional
democracy. The habits of the mind, as well as "habits of the heart," the dispositions that inform
the democratic ethos, are not inherited. As Alexis de Toqueville pointed out, each new
generation is a new people that must acquire the knowledge, learn the skills, and develop the
dispositions or traits of private and public character that undergird a constitutional democracy.
Those dispositions must be fostered and nurtured by word and study and by the power of
example. Democracy is not a "machine that would go of itself," but must be consciously
reproduced, one generation after another.
Civic education, therefore, is or should be a prime concern. There is no more important
task than the development of an informed, effective, and responsible citizenry. Democracies are
sustained by citizens who have the requisite knowledge, skills, and dispositions. Absent a
reasoned commitment on the part of its citizens to the fundamental values and principles of
democracy, a free and open society cannot succeed. It is imperative, therefore, that educators,
policymakers, and members of civil society make the case and ask for the support of civic
education from all segments of society and from the widest range of institutions and
It is relatively easy for a society to produce technically competent people. But the kind of
society Americans want to live in and the kind of government they want to have requires effort
and commitment on the part of its citizens. Americans want a society and a government
in which human rights are respected
• in which the individual's dignity and worth are acknowledged
• in which the rule of law is observed
• in which people willingly fulfill their responsibilities, and
• in which the common good is the concern of all.
Making that kind of society, that kind of government a reality is the most important challenge
Americans face and the most important work they could undertake.
II. WHAT IS CIVIC EDUCATION?
Civic Education in a democracy is education in self government. Democratic self
government means that citizens are actively involved in their own governance; they do not just
passively accept the dictums of others or acquiesce to the demands of others. As Aristotle put it
in his Politics (c 340 BC), "If liberty and equality, as is thought by some, are chiefly to be found
in democracy, they will be attained when all persons alike share in the government to the
utmost." In other words, the ideals of democracy are most completely realized when every
member of the political community shares in its governance. Members of the political
community are its citizens, hence citizenship in a democracy is membership in the body politic.
Membership implies participation, but not participation for participation's sake. Citizen
participation in a democratic society must be based on informed, critical reflection, and on the
understanding and acceptance of the rights and responsibilities that go with that membership.
Civic education in a democratic society most assuredly needs to be concerned with
promoting understanding of the ideals of democracy and a reasoned commitment to the values
and principles of democracy. That does not mean, however, that democracy should be presented
as utopia. Democracy is not utopian, and citizens need to understand that lest they become
cynical, apathetic, or simply withdraw from political life when their unrealistic expectations are
not met. To be effective civic education must be realistic; it must address the central truths about
political life. The American Political Science Association (APSA) recently formed a Task Force
on Civic Education. Its statement of purpose calls for more realistic teaching about the nature of
political life and a better understanding of "the complex elements of 'the art of the possible'." The
APSA report faults existing civic education because all too often it
seems unable to counter the belief that, in politics, one either wins
or loses, and to win means getting everything at once, now! The sense
that politics can always bring another day, another chance to be heard, to
persuade and perhaps to gain part of what one wants, is lost. Political
education today seems unable to teach the lessons of our political
history: Persistent civic engagement the slow, patient building of first
coalitions and then majorities can generate social change. (Carter and
A message of importance, therefore, is that politics need not, indeed must not, be a zero-sum game. The idea that "winner takes all" has no place in a democracy, because if losers lose all
they will opt out of the democratic game. Sharing is essential in a democratic society the
sharing of power, of resources, and of responsibilities. In a democratic society the possibility of
effecting social change is ever present, if citizens have the knowledge, the skills and the will to
bring it about. That knowledge, those skills and the will or necessary traits of private and public
character are the products of a good civic education.
III. WHAT ARE ESSENTIAL COMPONENTS OF A GOOD CIVIC EDUCATION?
What are the essential components of civic education appropriate for a democratic society?
That question was addressed recently in the course of the development of the National Standards
for Civics and Government. (Center for Civic Education, 1994.) More than 3,000 individuals and
groups participated in the development and/or review process. Those voluntary standards which
have been well received and critically acclaimed, not only in the country of their origin but in
many other nations as well, identify three essential components: civic knowledge, civic skills,
and civic dispositions.
Civic knowledge is concerned with the content or what citizens ought to know; the subject
matter, if you will. In both the National Standards and the Civics Framework for the 1998
National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), which currently is underway in schools
across the United States, the knowledge component is embodied in the form of five significant
and enduring questions. These are questions that have continued to engage not only political
philosophers and politicians; they are questions that do or should engage every thoughtful
citizen. The five questions are:
I. What are civic life, politics, and government?
II. What are the foundations of the American political system?
III. How does the government established by the Constitution embody the
purposes, values, and principles of American democracy?
IV. What is the relationship of the United States to other nations and to world
V. What are the roles of citizens in American democracy?
The choice of question format as a means of organizing the knowledge component was
deliberate. Democracy is a dialogue, a discussion, a deliberative process in which citizens
engage. The use of questions is intended to indicate that the process is never-ending, is an on-going marketplace of ideas, a search for new and better ways to realize democracy's ideals.
It is important that everyone has an opportunity to consider the essential questions about
government and civil society that continue to challenge thoughtful people. Addressing the first
organizing question "What are civic life, politics, and government?" helps citizens make
informed judgments about the nature of civic life, politics, and government, and why politics and
government are necessary; the purposes of government; the essential characteristics of limited
and unlimited government; the nature and purposes of constitutions, and alternative ways of
organizing constitutional governments. Consideration of this question should promote greater
understanding of the nature and importance of civil society or the complex network of freely
formed, voluntary political, social, and economic associations which is an essential component of
a constitutional democracy. A vital civil society not only prevents the abuse or excessive
concentration of power by government; the organizations of civil society serve as public
laboratories in which citizens learn democracy by doing it.
The second organizing question "What are the foundations of the American political
system?" entails an understanding of the historical, philosophical, and economic foundations of
the American political system; the distinctive characteristics of American society and political
culture; and the values and principles basic to American constitutional democracy, such as
individual rights and responsibilities, concern for the public good, the rule of law, justice,
equality, diversity, truth, patriotism, federalism, and the separation of powers. This question
promotes examination of the values and principles expressed in such fundamental documents as
the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, The Federalist Papers, and landmark
Supreme Court decisions. Study of the nation's core documents now is mandated by several
states including California, Ohio, South Carolina, Florida, and Kentucky. The United States
Commission on Immigration Reform in its 1997 Report to Congress (U.S. Commission on
Immigration, 1997), strongly recommended attention to the nation's founding documents saying:
Civic instruction in public schools should be rooted in the
Declaration of Independence, the Constitution particularly the
Preamble, the Bill of Rights, and the Fourteenth Amendment.
Emphasizing the ideals in these documents is in no way a distortion of
U.S. history. Instruction in the history of the United States, as a unique
engine of human liberty notwithstanding its faults, is an indispensable
foundation for solid civics training for all Americans.
Knowledge of the ideals, values, and principles set forth in the nation's core documents
serves an additional and useful purpose. Those ideals, values, and principles are criteria which
citizens can use to judge the means and ends of government, as well as the means and ends of the
myriad groups that are part of civil society.
The third organizing question "How does the government established by the Constitution
embody the purposes, values, and principles of American democracy?" helps citizens understand
and evaluate the limited government they have ordained and established and the complex
dispersal and sharing of powers it entails. Citizens who understand the justification for this
system of limited, dispersed, and shared power and its design are better able to hold their
governments local, state, and national accountable and to ensure that the rights of individuals
are protected. They also will develop a considered appreciation of the place of law in the
American political system, as well as of the unparalleled opportunities for choice and citizen
participation that the system makes possible.
The fourth organizing question "What is the relationship of the United States to other
nations and to world affairs?" is important because the United States does not exist in isolation;
it is a part of an increasingly interconnected world. To make judgments about the role of the
United States in the world today and about what course American foreign policy should take,
citizens need to understand the major elements of international relations and how world affairs
affect their own lives, and the security and well being of their communities, state, and nation.
Citizens also need to develop a better understanding of the roles of major international
governmental and non governmental organizations, because of the increasingly significant role
that they are playing in the political, social, and economic realms.
The final organizing question "What are the roles of citizens in American democracy?" is
of particular importance. Citizenship in a constitutional democracy means that each citizen is a
full and equal member of a self governing community and is endowed with fundamental rights
and entrusted with responsibilities. Citizens should understand that through their involvement in
political life and in civil society, they can help to improve the quality of life in their
neighborhoods, communities, and nation. If they want their voices to be heard, they must become
active participants in the political process. Although elections, campaigns, and voting are central
to democratic institutions, citizens should learn that beyond electoral politics many participatory
opportunities are open to them. Finally, they should come to understand that the attainment of
individual goals and public goals tend to go hand in hand with participation in political life and
civil society. They are more likely to achieve personal goals for themselves and their families, as
well as the goals they desire for their communities, state, and nation, if they are informed,
effective, and responsible citizens.
Civic Skills: Intellectual and Participatory
The second essential component of civic education in a democratic society is civic skills. If
citizens are to exercise their rights and discharge their responsibilities as members of self-governing communities, they not only need to acquire a body of knowledge such as that
embodied in the five organizing questions just described; they also need to acquire relevant
intellectual and participatory skills.
Intellectual skills in civics and government are inseparable from content. To be able to
think critically about a political issue, for example, one must have an understanding of the issue,
its history, its contemporary relevance, as well as command of a set of intellectual tools or
considerations useful in dealing with such an issue.
The intellectual skills essential for informed, effective, and responsible citizenship
sometimes are called critical thinking skills. The National Standards for Civics and Government
and the Civics Framework for the 1998 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP)
categorize these skills as identifying and describing; explaining and analyzing; and evaluating,
taking, and defending positions on public issues. A good civic education enables one to identify
or give the meaning or significance of things that are tangible such as the flag, national
monuments, or civic and political events. It also enables one to give the meaning or significance
of intangibles, such as ideas or concepts including patriotism, majority and minority rights, civil
society, and constitutionalism.
The ability to identify emotional language and symbols is of particular importance for
citizens. They need to be able to discern the true purposes for which emotive language and
symbols are being employed.
Another intellectual skill which good civic education fosters is that of describing. The
ability to describe functions and processes such as legislative checks and balances or judicial
review is indicative of understanding. Discerning and describing trends, such as participation in
civic life, immigration, or employment helps the citizen fit current events into a longer term
Good civic education seeks to develop competence in explaining and analyzing. If citizens
can explain how something should work, for example the American federal system, the legal
system, or the system of checks and balances, they will be more able to detect and help correct
malfunctions. Citizens also need to be able to analyze such things as the components and
consequences of ideas, social, political, or economic processes, and institutions. The ability to
analyze enables one to distinguish between fact and opinion or between means and ends. It also
helps the citizen to clarify responsibilities such as those between personal and public
responsibilities or those between elected or appointed officials and citizens.
In a self-governing society citizens are decision-makers. They need, therefore, to develop
and continue to improve their skills of evaluating, taking, and defending positions. These skills
are essential if citizens are to assess issues on the public agenda, to make judgments about issues
and to discuss their assessment with others in public or private.
In addition to the acquisition of knowledge and intellectual skills, education for citizenship
in a democratic society must focus on skills that are required for informed, effective, and
responsible participation in the political process and in civil society. Those skills can be
categorized as interacting, monitoring, and influencing. Interacting pertains to the skills citizens
need to communicate and to work cooperatively with others. To interact is to be responsive to
one's fellow citizens. To interact is to question, to answer, and to deliberate with civility, as well
as to build coalitions and to manage conflict in a fair, peaceful manner. Monitoring politics and
government refers to the skills citizens need to track the handling of issues by the political
process and by government. Monitoring also means the exercising of oversight or "watchdog"
functions on the part of citizens. Finally, the participatory skill of influencing refers to the
capacity to affect the processes of politics and governance, both the formal and the informal
processes of governance in the community.
It is essential that the development of participatory skills begins in the earliest grades and
that it continues throughout the course of schooling. The youngest pupils can learn to interact in
small groups or committees, to pool information, exchange opinions or formulate plans of action
commensurate with their maturity. They can learn to listen attentively, to question effectively,
and to manage conflicts through mediation, compromise, or consensus-building. Older students
can and should be expected to develop the skills of monitoring and influencing public policy.
They should learn to research public issues using electronic resources, libraries, the telephone,
personal contacts, and the media. Attendance at public meetings ranging from student councils to
school boards, city councils, zoning commissions, and legislative hearings ought to be a required
part of every high school student's experience. Observation of the courts and exposure to the
workings of the judicial system also ought to be a required part of their civic education.
Observation in and of itself is not sufficient, however. Students not only need to be prepared for
such experiences, they need well planned, structured opportunities to reflect on their experiences
under the guidance of knowledgeable and skillful mentors.
If citizens are to influence the course of political life and the public policies adopted, they
need to expand their repertoire of participatory skills. Voting certainly is an important means of
exerting influence; but it is not the only means. Citizens also need to learn to use such means as
petitioning, speaking, or testifying before public bodies, joining ad-hoc advocacy groups, and
forming coalitions. Like the skills of interacting and monitoring, the skill of influencing can and
should be systematically developed.
Civic Dispositions: Essential Traits of Private and Public Character
The third essential component of civic education, civic dispositions, refers to the traits of
private and public character essential to the maintenance and improvement of constitutional
Civic dispositions, like civic skills, develop slowly over time and as a result of what one
learns and experiences in the home, school, community, and organizations of civil society. Those
experiences should engender understanding that democracy requires the responsible self
governance of each individual; one cannot exist without the other. Traits of private character
such as moral responsibility, self discipline, and respect for the worth and human dignity of
every individual are imperative. Traits of public character are no less consequential. Such traits
as public spiritedness, civility, respect for the rule of law, critical mindedness, and willingness to
listen, negotiate, and compromise are indispensable to democracy's success.
Civic dispositions that contribute to the political efficacy of the individual, the healthy
functioning of the political system, a sense of dignity and worth, and the common good were
identified in the National Standards for Civics and Government. In the interest of brevity, those
dispositions or traits of private and public character might be described as:
• Becoming an independent member of society. This disposition encompasses
adhering voluntarily to self-imposed standards of behavior rather than requiring the
imposition of external controls, accepting responsibility for the consequences of
one's actions and fulfilling the moral and legal obligations of membership in a
• Assuming the personal, political, and economic responsibilities of a citizen. These
responsibilities include taking care of one's self, supporting one's family and caring
for, nurturing, and educating one's children. They also include being informed about
public issues, voting, paying taxes, serving on juries, performing public service, and
serving in leadership positions commensurate with one's talents.
• Respecting individual worth and human dignity. Respecting others means listening
to their opinions, behaving in a civil manner, considering the rights and interests of
fellow citizens, and adhering to the principle of majority rule but recognizing the
right of the minority to dissent.
• Participating in civic affairs in a thoughtful and effective manner. This disposition
entails becoming informed prior to voting or participating in public debate, engaging
in civil and reflective discourse, and assuming leadership when appropriate. It also
entails evaluating whether and when one's obligations as a citizen require that
personal desires and interests be subordinated to the public good and evaluating
whether and when one's obligations or constitutional principles obligate one to reject
certain civic expectations.
• Promoting the healthy functioning of constitutional democracy. This disposition
encompasses being informed and attentive to public affairs, learning about and
deliberating on constitutional values and principles, monitoring the adherence of
political leaders and public agencies to those values and principles and taking
appropriate action if adherence is lacking. This disposition also inclines the citizen to
work through peaceful, legal means to change laws that are thought to be unwise or
The importance of civic dispositions, or the "habits of the heart," as Alexis de Toqueville
called them, can scarcely be overemphasized. The traits of public and private character that
undergird democracy are, in the long run, probably of more consequence than the knowledge or
skills a citizen may command. Judge Learned Hand, in a speech made in New York in 1944,
captured the centrality of civic dispositions in his now famous words:
Liberty lies in the hearts of men and women; when it dies there, no
constitution, no law, no court can save it; no constitution, no law, no
court can even do much to help it. While it lies there, it needs no
constitution, no law, no court to save it.
IV. WHERE AND HOW DOES CIVIC EDUCATION TAKE PLACE?
Many institutions help develop citizens' knowledge and skills and shape their civic
character and commitments. Family, religious institutions, the media, and community groups
exert important influences. Schools, however, bear a special and historic responsibility for the
development of civic competency and civic responsibility. Schools fulfill that responsibility
through both formal and informal education beginning in the earliest years and continuing
through the entire educational process.
Formal instruction in civics and government should provide a basic and realistic
understanding of civic life, politics, and government. It should familiarize students with the
constitutions of the United States and the state in which they live, because these and other core
documents are criteria which can be used to judge the means and ends of government. Formal instruction should enable citizens to understand the workings of their own and
other political systems, as well as the relationship of the politics and government of their own
country to world affairs. Good civic education promotes an understanding of how and why one's
own security, quality of life, and economic position is connected to that of neighboring countries,
as well as to major regional, international, and transnational organizations.
Formal instruction should emphasize the rights and responsibilities of citizens in a
constitutional democracy. The Declaration of Independence, which many consider to be an
extended preamble to the United States Constitution, holds that governments are instituted to
secure the rights of citizens. Those rights have been categorized in various ways but a useful and
generally accepted categorization divides them in this manner:
• Personal rights such as freedom of thought, conscience, expression, and association
and freedom of residence, movement, and travel.
• Political rights such as freedom of speech, press, assembly, and petition, as well as
the right to vote and run for public office.
• Economic rights such as the right to acquire, use and transfer property, to choose
one's work or change employment, to join a labor union or a professional
organization, to establish and operate a business, to obtain a copyright or patent, and
to enter lawful contracts.
Instruction about rights should make it clear that few rights can be considered absolute.
Rights may reinforce or conflict with one another or with other values and interests and therefore
require reasonable limitations. The rights of liberty and equality, for example, or the rights of the
individual and the common good often conflict with one another. It is very important, therefore,
that citizens develop a framework for clarifying ideas about rights and the relationships among
rights and other values and interests. This framework then can provide a basis for making
reasoned decisions about the proper scope and limits of rights.
Formal instruction in civics and government should be no less attentive to the
responsibilities of citizens in a constitutional democracy. An understanding of the importance of
individual rights must be accompanied by an examination of personal and civic responsibilities.
For American democracy to flourish, citizens not only must be aware of their rights, they must
also exercise them responsibly and they must fulfill those personal and civic responsibilities
necessary to a self-governing, free, and just society. Those responsibilities include:
• Personal responsibilities such as taking care of one's self, supporting one's family,
and caring for, nurturing, and educating one's children, accepting responsibility for
the consequences of one's actions, adhering to moral principles, considering the
rights and interests of others, and behaving in a civil manner.
• Civic responsibilities such as obeying the law, being informed and attentive to public
issues, assuming leadership when appropriate, paying taxes, voting, serving as a juror
or in the armed forces, monitoring the adherence of political leaders and
governmental agencies to constitutional principles and taking appropriate action if
that adherence is lacking, and performing public service.
Instruction about responsibilities should make it clear that rights and responsibilities go
hand in hand. Responsibilities are the other half of the democratic equation. A sense of personal
responsibility and civic obligation are in fact the social foundations on which individual rights
and freedoms ultimately rest.
The Informal Curriculum
In addition to the formal curriculum, good civic education is attentive to the informal
curriculum. The informal curriculum encompasses the governance of the school community and
the relationships among those within it, as well as the "extra" or co-curricular activities that a
The importance of the governance of the school community and the quality of the
relationships among those within it can scarcely be overemphasized. Classroom and schools
should be managed by adults who govern in accord with democratic values and principles, and
who display traits of character, private and public, that are worthy of emulation. Students also
should be held accountable for behaving in accord with fair and reasonable standards and for
respecting the rights and dignity of others, including their peers.
Research has consistently demonstrated the positive effects of co-curricular activities.
Students who participate in them are more motivated to learn, more self confident, and exhibit
greater leadership capabilities. Further, a major new survey, the National Longitudinal Study on
Adolescent Health (1997), has found that "connectedness with school" is a significant protective
factor in the lives of young people. "School engagement is a critical protective factor against a
variety of risky behaviors, influenced in good measure by perceived caring from teachers and
high expectations for student performance."
Fortunately opportunities for co-curricular activities related to civic education have been
expanding in the United States, and they need to be even more encouraged. Some activities have
become regional or national events such as mock elections, mock trials, and History Day. Two
nation-wide programs developed by the Center for Civic Education have now involved more
than 26 million students. We the People... The Citizen and the Constitution engages students in
mock legislative hearings on constitutional issues, and Project Citizen teaches middle school
students how to identify, research, and devise solutions for local problems, as well as how to
make realistic plans for gaining their acceptance as public policies. Both We the People... and
Project Citizen not only bring students into direct contact with government at all levels and with
organizations in civil society, these programs have had other positive civic consequences as well.
During the Spring of 1993, Professor Richard A. Brody of Stanford University conducted a
study of 1,351 high school students from across the United States. The study was designed to
determine the degree to which civics curricula in general and the We the People... program in
particular affect students' political attitudes. The study focused on the concept of "political
tolerance." "Political tolerance" refers to citizens' respect for the political rights and civil liberties
of all people in the society, including those whose ideas they may find distasteful or abhorrent. It
is a concept which encompasses many of the beliefs, values, and attitudes that are essential in a
Among the most important findings of the Brody study were these:
• Overall, students in high school civics, government, and American history classes
display more "political tolerance" than the average American.
• Students in classes using all or part of the We the People... curriculum are more
tolerant than students following other curricula.
• Tolerance can be learned from experiences that expose one to the norms of American
society and from experiences that require the individual to both explain and defend
his or her point of view and listen carefully to the viewpoints of others.
• The highest levels of tolerance were demonstrated by students who participated in
the simulated congressional hearing competitions which are an optional portion of
the We the People... program.
Community service is another area of the curriculum in which increasing numbers of
students are participating. Community service is in keeping with long established American
traditions. It was more than a century and a half ago that Alexis de Toqueville was moved to
write that "Americans of all ages, all stations in life, and all types of disposition in life, are
forever forming associations. There are not only commercial and industrial associations... but
others of a thousand different types religious, moral, serious, futile, very general, and very
limited, immensely large and very minute." (de Tocqueville, 1969.) He marveled at Americans
penchant for voluntary service to their communities and to causes in which they believed. The
experience of getting involved in local voluntary associations, de Toqueville said, generated a
sense of individual responsibility for the public good and inclined them to become "orderly,
temperate, moderate, and self-controlled citizens."
Present day scholars tend to agree with de Toqueville's observations about the importance
of voluntarism and of a vibrant civil society. Seymour Martin Lipset contends that These
Estimates of the number of adult Americans who perform voluntary services vary. A study
conducted by the Center for Survey Research at the University of Virginia (Guterbock, 1997)
found that about 44 percent of all adults had volunteered time in the preceding year. An earlier
World Values Survey puts the number of Americans who are active in and do unpaid work for
voluntary associations at "fully three fifths" of the adult population. Only about one quarter of
the adults in Britain, Italy, or Japan do unpaid voluntary work, while less than a third do so in
France or Germany.
The record of American youth for community service is of particular interest and is, in
general, encouraging. In a recent study involving more than 8,000 students in grades six through
twelve, about half of those interviewed reported participation in some type of service activity.
Among those who participated regularly, 12 percent gave more that 30 hours and 19 percent
more than 10 hours. Almost all (91 percent) of the students who participated in the 1995-96
school year indicated that they expected to continue to serve. (U.S. Department of Education,
Among the more significant findings of that study of student participation in community
service activities are these:
• While many students were involved, not all kinds of students were involved equally.
Those who were more likely to participate were students who received high grades,
females, students for whom English was the primary language they spoke at home,
and 11th and 12th graders. By contrast, students who received lower grades, males,
and 6th through 10th graders were less likely to participate.
• The greater the number of types of activities students were involved in (i.e., student
government, other school activities, non-school activities, or work for pay), the more
likely they were to participate in community service. Students who attended private
schools, especially church-related schools, were also more likely to have done
• Students were more likely to participate if an adult in the household participated in
community service and if the highest degree held by a parent was a college degree or
• The great majority of students (86 percent) were in schools that in some way
encouraged community service, and these policies were related to student
participation in community service.
• Many students also reported that their schools incorporated their community service
into the curriculum.
Community service can be an important part of civic education, provided it is properly
conceived as being more than just doing good deeds. Community service should be integrated
into both the formal and informal curriculum of the school. Community service is not a substitute
for formal instruction in civics and government, but it can enhance that instruction. Schools,
therefore, need to do more than make students aware of opportunities to serve their schools and
communities. Students need to be adequately prepared for experiential learning. They need to
understand the institution or agency with which they'll be engaged and its larger social and
political context. Students need to be supervised and provided with regular opportunities to
reflect on their experiences. In the course of reflection students should be asked to consider
questions such as: Is this something government should do? Is this something better attended by
private individuals or groups in the civil society sector? How might the school or community
problems you have seen be ameliorated? In what ways might you personally contribute to the
amelioration of those problems? What knowledge have you personally gained as a result of your
experiences? What additional knowledge do you need to acquire in order to be better informed?
What intellectual or critical thinking skills have you developed through this service learning
activity? How have your skills of interacting, and of monitoring and influencing public policy
been improved? How has your understanding of the roles of the citizen in a democratic society
V. WHAT EVIDENCE IS THERE OF THE NEED
TO IMPROVE CIVIC EDUCATION?
The idea that American schools have a distinctively civic mission has been recognized
since the earliest days of the Republic. Jefferson, Madison, Adams, and others realized that the
establishment of well-constructed political institutions was not in itself a sufficiently strong
foundation to maintain constitutional democracy. They knew that ultimately a free society must
depend on its citizens on their knowledge, skills, and civic virtues. They believed that the civic
mission of the schools is to foster the qualities of mind and heart required for successful
government within a constitutional democracy.
Americans still believe that schools have a civic mission and that education for good
citizenship should be the schools' top priority. The 28th Annual Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll
conducted in 1996 asked respondents what they considered to be the most important purpose of
the nation's schools, apart from providing a basic education. "To prepare students to be
responsible citizens" was considered "very important" by more people than any other goal.
Nationally 86 percent of those with no children in school and those with children in public
schools were in agreement; the percentage in agreement shot up to 88 percent for nonpublic
school parents. When Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup conducted a follow-up poll of just teachers the
results were the same. (Landon, 1996.) Eighty four percent of America's teachers said "to prepare
students for responsible citizenship was "very important," while another 15 percent called it
A survey which compared results from the United States with those of eleven other
countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) also is
revealing. (U.S. Department of Education, 1997.) When Americans were asked which qualities
or aptitudes schools consider "essential" or "very important," 86 percent said "being a good
citizen." Unfortunately, when Americans were asked if they had confidence that schools have a
major effect on the development of good citizenship only 59 percent said that they did. How
justified is that lack of confidence? A brief review of recent research affords some disconcerting
• The nation's oldest and most comprehensive assessment of the attitudes of freshmen
at 464 institutions is conducted annually by the Higher Education Research Institute
at the University of California at Los Angeles. The American Freshman: National
Norms for Fall 1997, (Sax & Astin et.al. 1997), its most recent report, found that
"this year's college freshmen exhibit higher levels of disengagement both
academically and politically than any previous entering class of students."
• ....The 1997 freshmen demonstrate the lowest levels of political interest in the history
of the survey. A record low 26.7 percent of today's freshmen believe that "keeping up
to date with political affairs" is a very important or essential life goal (compared to
29.4 percent last year and a high of 57.8 percent in 1966). Similarly, an all-time low
13.7 percent of freshmen say they frequently discuss politics (compared to 16.2
percent last year, and a high of 29.9 percent in 1968). The percent of students who
desire to "influence the political structure" has also dipped to 16.7 percent, from 17.7
percent last year and a high of 20.6 percent in 1993. While the percent of students
working on a local, state, or national political campaign increased from 6.6 percent to
8.2 percent between 1996 and 1997, this figure remains at only half of the record
high 16.4 percent reached in 1969. Finally, the percent of freshmen who frequently
vote in student elections continues on a dramatic decline from 76.9 percent in 1968
to 21.3 percent in 1997 (compared to 23.0 percent last year).
• Students' disinterest in politics is paralleled by their increasing disinterest in
activism. In the five years since students' interest in activism peaked on the 1992
survey, many indicators of activism have declined. The percent of students who say
that "becoming involved in programs to clean up the environment" is a very
important or essential life goal declined steadily from 33.6 percent in 1992 to 19.4
percent in 1997. Commitment to "helping to promote racial understanding" fell to its
lowest point in a decade (31.8 percent, compared to 34.7 percent last year and a high
of 42.0 in 1992). The percent who consider it very important or essential to
"participate in a community action program" also declined to its lowest point in a
decade (22.8 percent, compared to 23.7 percent last year and a high of 30.4 percent
in 1975). Finally, the percent of students who are personally committed to
"influencing social values" fell to its lowest point in nearly a decade (37.6 percent,
compared to 39.0 percent last year and a high of 43.3 percent in 1992). (See Figure 3
on the following page.)
Sax, L.J., Astin, A.W., Korn, W.S., & Mahoney, K.M., (1997). The American
Freshman: National Norms for 1997. Los Angeles, CA: Higher Education Institute, UCLA.
• In a survey conducted in late 1997, (National Constitution Center, 1997), more
than 90 percent of Americans agreed that "the U.S. Constitution is important to
me" and that "I'm proud of the U.S. Constitution." The National Constitution
Center was created by Congress in 1988 to increase Americans awareness of the
document. The Center measures public awareness by conducting surveys. Those
surveys have shown that "people have an appalling lack of knowledge for a
document that impacts their daily lives." According to Mayor Edward G. Rendell
of Philadelphia, current chairman of the Center, more than three quarters (83
percent) admit that they know only "some" or "very little" about the specifics of
the Constitution. For example, only 6 percent can name all four rights guaranteed
by the First Amendment; 62 percent cannot name all three branches of the Federal
government; 35 percent believe the Constitution mandates English as the official
language; and more than half of Americans don't know the number of senators.
When asked to identify the causes of American ignorance of the document
which they profess to revere and which they acknowledge matters a great deal in
their daily lives, Rendell faulted the schools failure to teach civics and government.
He said he believed Americans lack of knowledge stems partly from an education
system that tends to treat the Constitution in the context of history, rather than as a
living document that shapes current events. (Morin, 1997.)
U.S. Secretary of Education, Richard W. Riley was equally dismayed by the
results of the National Constitution Center's study. In a press release issued
September 15, 1997, Riley said
This poll suggests to me that most Americans seem to
regard the Constitution like a family heirloom that is kept
protectively in an upstairs sock drawer but never taken out
and examined. I believe this lack of knowledge about how
the Constitution functions leads to many of the discontents
in our nation and current levels of distrust toward our
Riley went on to say that:
The U.S. Department of Education is one of the
leading contributors to current efforts to overcome this lack
of awareness about how our democracy functions. The
Department... support(s) the work of the Center for Civic
Education, the "We the People" organization and the many
efforts by our nation's civics teachers to educate our young
people about our democracy. It is clear to me, however,
that we have to do much more to keep the spirit of the
Constitution alive for all Americans.
• The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) is a survey mandated by
the U.S. Congress to collect and report information about student achievement in
various academic subjects. NAEP sometimes is called "The Nation's Report Card,"
because for more than 25 years it has provided Americans with information about
how much and how well students are learning in mathematics, science, reading,
history, geography, and other subjects. Currently NAEP is assessing civics.
Results of the 1998 survey will not be available until late 1999 or early in the year
2000. The 1990 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) Report Card
in Civics, however, revealed that students have only a superficial knowledge of
civics and lack depth of understanding. For example, only 38 percent of 8th
graders knew that Congress makes laws; and nearly half of high school seniors did
not recognize typical examples of the federal system of checks and balances.
Although half of the high school seniors tested displayed a detailed knowledge of
major government structures and their functions, only six percent demonstrated a
more developed understanding of a wide range of political institutions and
The same NAEP Report Card also showed that although some students made
gains in civics proficiency across the twelve year period separating the 1976 and
1988 assessments, most did not. At age 17, the performance of students attending
schools in each of the types of communities studied advantaged and
disadvantaged, urban and other declined significantly. There were significant gaps
in the performance of most students. Particularly disturbing were the disparities
among subpopulations. Eighth and twelfth grade males were more likely than their
female peers to reach the highest levels of civic proficiency as defined by NAEP.
The percentages of Black and Hispanic students who reached the uppermost levels
of proficiency were far smaller than the percentage of White students who did.
• Over the past decade, dozens of studies, commissions, and national reports have
called attention to the failure to ensure that America's classrooms are staffed with
qualified teachers. The National Commission on Teaching & America's Future
(1996) in a particularly hard-hitting report noted that:
Although no state will allow a person to fix plumbing,
guard swimming pools, style hair, write wills, design a
building, or practice medicine without completing training
and passing an examination, more than 40 states allow
school districts to hire teachers on emergency licenses who
have not met these basic requirements. Some pay more
attention to the qualifications of veterinarians treating the
nation's cats and dogs than to those of teachers educating
the nation's children and youth.
Teacher expertise, as research has consistently and repeatedly shown, is one
of the most telling factors in raising student achievement. One extensive study
found that nearly 40 percent of the differences in student test scores were
attributable to differences in teacher expertise, as measured by college degrees,
years of teaching experience, and scores on teacher licensing examinations.
Further, teacher expertise was of more significance than that of any other factor,
including parent education, family income, or other socioeconomic characteristics.
A recent review of research on one of the least recognized causes of poor
quality teaching (Ingersoll, 1998) is sobering. The problem is out-of-field teaching,
or teachers being assigned to teach subjects that do not match their training or
education. It is more widespread and more serious than has been recognized. It
happens in well over half of the secondary schools in the nation in any given year,
both rural and urban, affluent and low income. Low income public schools,
however, have a higher level of out-of-field teaching than do schools in more
affluent communities. Studies also show that recently hired teachers are more often
assigned to teach subjects for which they are not trained than are experienced
teachers. Lower-achieving classes are more often taught by teachers without a
major or minor in the field than are higher-achieving classes. Junior high and
middle school classes also are more likely than senior high classes to be taught by
less than qualified teachers.
More than half of all secondary school history students in the country now
are being taught by teachers with neither a major nor a minor in history. No data
currently are available on the subject matter qualifications of teachers of civics and
government, but one could surmise that the numbers of teachers with majors or
minors in political science or allied fields would be even less.
In an effort to ensure that teachers are qualified for the subjects they will
teach, some states have begun to test applicants for teaching positions. The
National Center for Education Statistics reported in 1997 that about one half of the
nation's school districts now require passage of state tests of basic skills while 39
percent require passage of state tests of subject knowledge. While those efforts are
a step in the right direction, they fall short of the goal of assuring that all children
are taught by teachers who not only have in-depth knowledge of the subject they
teach but who also have the skills and the enthusiasm to teach it well.
VI. WHAT IS THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN CIVIC EDUCATION AND
Interest in and concern about character education and education for citizenship are not
new in America. The two have always gone hand in hand. Indeed, the basic reason for
establishing and expanding public schooling was to foster those traits of public and private
character necessary for our great experiment in self-government to succeed.
In the early days of our republic, schools were expected to induce pupils to act
virtuously. Acting virtuously meant more specifically that one should act with due restraint
over his or her impulses, due regard for the rights and opinions of others, and reasonable
concern for the probable and the long-term consequences of one's actions.
Virtue in individuals then was seen as an important public matter. "Public virtue cannot
exist in a nation without private..." said John Adams. Jefferson agreed with him saying "Public
virtue is the only foundation of Republics. There must be a positive passion for the public
good, the public interest... established in the minds of the people, or there can be no
Republican government, no any real Liberty." It is interesting to note that Adams' warning is
echoed in the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS, 1996) Position Statement
"Fostering Civic Virtue: Character Education in the Social Studies." That bold and well-written position statement concludes with these words:
Social studies teachers have a responsibility and a duty to refocus
their classrooms on the teaching of character and civic virtue. They
should not be timid or hesitant about working toward these goals. The
fate of the American experiment in self-government depends in no
small part on the store of civic virtue that resides in the American
people. The social studies profession of this nation has vital role to play
in keeping this well-spring of civic virtue flowing.
Character, however, does not come pre-packaged. Character formation is a lengthy and
complex process. And, as James Q. Wilson (Wilson, 1995), a life-long student of character,
reminds us; "We do not know how character is formed in any scientifically rigorous sense."
But there is an abundance of anecdotal data and research on which to draw. Those observations
and that research tell us that the study of traditional school subjects such as government, civics,
history and literature, when properly taught, provide the necessary conceptual framework for
character education. Further, those traditional school subjects provide a context for considering
the traits of public and private character which are important to the maintenance and
improvement of a democratic way of life.
Research also tells us that the ethos or culture of the school and of the classroom exert
powerful influences on what students learn about authority, responsibility, justice, civility and
respect. Finally, we know that one dynamic by which individuals acquire desired traits of
private and public character is through exposure to attractive models of behavior. Probably no
one has explained that dynamic better than Robert Coles in The Moral Intelligence of Children,
(Coles, 1997). Coles tells us that:
Character is ultimately who we are expressed in action, in how
we live, in what we do and so the children around us know, they
absorb and take stock of what they observe, namely us we adults
living and doing things in a certain spirit, getting on with one another
in our various ways. Our children add up, imitate, file away what
they've observed and so very often later fall in line with the particular
moral counsel we unwittingly or quite unself-consciously have offered
Because the United States is the world's oldest constitutional democracy, it sometimes is
easy to forget that our American government is an experiment. It is an experiment that
requires, as the authors of the Federalist Papers put it, a higher degree of virtue in its citizens
than any other form of government. Traits of private character such as moral responsibility,
self-discipline, and respect for individual worth and human dignity are essential to its well-being. American constitutional democracy cannot accomplish its purposes, however, unless its
citizens also are inclined to participate thoughtfully in public affairs. Traits of public character
such as public-spiritedness, civility, respect for law, critical-mindedness, and a willingness to
negotiate and compromise are indispensable to the continued success of the great American
experiment in self government.
How can civic education strengthen and complement the development of character?
Primary responsibility for the cultivation of ethical behavior and the development of private
character, including moral character, lies with families, religious institutions, work settings,
and the other parts of civil society. Schools, however, can and should play a major role in the
overall development of the character of students. Effective civic education programs should
provide students with many opportunities for the development of desirable traits of public and
private character. Learning activities such as the following tend to promote character traits
needed to participate effectively. For example,
• Civility, courage, self-discipline, persistence, concern for the common good,
respect for others, and other traits relevant to citizenship can be promoted through
cooperative learning activities and in class meetings, student councils, simulated
public hearings, mock trials, mock elections, and student courts.
• Self-discipline, respect for others, civility, punctuality, personal responsibility, and
other character traits can be fostered in school and community service learning
projects, such as tutoring younger students, caring for the school environment, and
participating in voter registration drives.
• Recognition of shared values and a sense of community can be encouraged through
celebration of national and state holidays, and celebration of the achievements of
classmates and local citizens.
• Attentiveness to public affairs can be encouraged by regular discussions of
significant current events.
• Reflection on ethical considerations can occur when students are asked to evaluate,
take, and defend positions on issues that involve ethical considerations, that is,
issues concerning good and bad, rights and wrong.
• Civicmindedness can be increased if schools work with civic organizations,bring
community leaders into the classroom to discuss issues with students, and provide
opportunities for students to observe and/or participate in civic organizations.
VII. POLICY RECOMMENDATIONS
• Sustained and systematic attention should be given to civic education in the
K-12 curriculum. Although the National Education Goals, as well as the goals,
curricular requirements, and policies of every state, express the need for and extol
the value of civic education, this vital part of the student's overall education is
seldom given sustained and systematic attention in the K-12 curriculum. Inattention
to civic education stems in part from the false assumption that the knowledge and
skills citizens need emerge as by-products of the study of other disciplines or as an
outcome of the process of schooling itself.
While it is true that history, economics, literature, and other subjects do
enhance students' understanding of government and politics, they cannot replace
sustained, systematic attention to civic education. Civics should be seen as a central
concern from kindergarten through twelfth grade, whether it is taught as a part of
other curricula or in separate units or courses.
We recommend that states and school districts give serious consideration to
the allocation of sufficient time for civics and government. The following proposed
allocation is offered for purposes of stimulating discussion.
Proposed Allocation of Time for Civics and Government in the Curriculum
for Grades Kindergarten through Twelve
Requirements by Grades
• Schools should thoroughly examine the "informal curriculum," or the
governance of their school community and the relationships among those
within it. The importance of the governance of the school community and the
quality of the relationships among those within it can scarcely be overemphasized.
Classrooms and schools should be managed by adults who govern in accord with
democratic values and principles and who display traits of character, private and
public, worthy of emulation.
• Student participation in the governance of their classrooms and schools should
be an integral part of civic education beginning in the earliest grades and
extending throughout the span of their formal schooling. Classrooms and
schools should be considered laboratories in which students can employ
participatory skills commensurate with their maturity. They should learn to interact
effectively, as well as learn how to monitor and influence school and public
policies. Governance, as used here, means more than seeking or serving in a class
or school office. It means having a voice in such matters as school rules and
disciplinary procedures. Governance means that each student is a citizen possessed
of the rights and charged with the responsibilities that accrue to citizens in a
• Civic education should help students develop a reasoned commitment to those
fundamental values and principles necessary for the preservation and
improvement of American constitutional democracy. Civic education, however,
must distinguish between education and indoctrination. Civic education enables
citizens to make wise choices in full awareness of alternatives and provides the
kind of experiences and understanding that foster the development of a reasoned
commitment to those values and principles that enable a free society to exist.
• Every student should become familiar with the nation's fundamental
documents through age-appropriate instruction. These documents would include
but are not limited to the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, The
Federalist Papers, landmark decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court, the constitution
of the state in which they reside, and other significant writings and speeches.
• Students at all grade levels can profit from the study of exemplary citizens,
both the famous and not-so-famous, those from the past and from the present.
The use of a wide variety of age-appropriate historical narratives, biographies,
autobiographies, and current accounts in the media should be encouraged.
Students, particularly in an age of anti-heroes, should have many opportunities to
learn about people who have defended human rights and political freedoms,
fulfilled civic responsibilities, or had the courage to make ethical and moral
decisions when they were in the minority.
• Co-curricular activities that support and extend civic education should be
encouraged. Activities such as mock elections, mock trials, and simulated
legislative hearings promote greater interest and understanding of government and
civil society. The worth of such activities is attested to by abundant research.
Teachers who devote time to the sponsorship of co-curricular activities allied to
civic education should be recognized and appropriately rewarded for their
• The opportunity for school and community service should be made available to
all young people as a part of their civic education. Students should be prepared
for age-appropriate service, adequately supervised during their service, and
expected to reflect on their experiences under the guidance of qualified teachers or
• Community service should bring students into direct contact with government
at every level and with sectors of civil society appropriate to their study of
civics and government. Students should go out into the community to observe, to
interview, and to contribute their time and talents in the interest of the common
good. Members of the community government officials, civic leaders, and other
knowledgeable persons should be invited into schools to share their insights and
expertise with students.
• States and school districts should be more attentive to the professional
development needs of beginning and less experienced teachers. Requirements
for renewal of credentials or licenses should ensure that K-12 civics and
government teachers deepen their understanding of the discipline, hone their
instructional skills, and broaden their knowledge of and interaction with the civic
• State and school districts should recognize, reward, and retain teachers who
are outstanding civic educators so that they are not lost to the nation's
classrooms. More than 200 studies have found that teachers who have greater
training in both their subject matter and in how to teach it well are more effective
with students. All too often, however, master teachers move into school
administration or other professions where financial or other rewards are greater.
Efforts need to be made, therefore, to see that recognition and rewards are
sufficient to persuade the best teachers to remain in the classroom.
National, State, and Local Level
• Because the maintenance and improvement of our constitutional democracy is
dependent upon the knowledge, skills, and traits of public and private
character of all our citizens, we recommend a national initiative to revitalize
civic education. A nationwide initiative in civic education could focus on the
importance of civic education for every child in America which provides a
grounding in the rights and responsibilities of members of a constitutional
democracy. Such an initiative would increase civic literacy, foster civility among
citizens,promote understanding and appreciation of democratic institutions and
processes, and enhance a sense of political efficacy.
The groundwork for the renewal of civic education has already been laid by
more than two decades of commission reports, books, and articles by educators,
scholars, and journalists. In 1987 the bicentennial of the U.S. Constitution
occasioned an outpouring of interest in the substance of civic education. In 1991,
CIVITAS: A Framework for Civic Education was published; and in 1994, the
National Standards for Civics and Government were completed. These Standards,
developed in response to the Educate America Act, continue to receive national and
international acclaim. They delineate what students should know and be able to do
when they complete grades 4, 8, and 12. The most recent call for action is the final
report of the National Commission on Civic Renewal released in June, 1998. That
report, A Nation of Spectators: How Civic Disengagement Weakens America and
What We Can Do About It, calls upon the American people to "once again rise to
the challenge of self government" and "to advance the cause of school-based civic
The time is ripe for a nationwide initiative that could promote increased
citizen interest, understanding, and participation in local, state, and national
government, as well as in the civic associations, processes, and purposes of
The principal aims of this initiative would be to:
• deepen understanding of the historical, philosophical, political, social, and
economic foundations of American constitutional democracy.
• promote understanding of how a constitutional government operates and an
appreciation of the rights and responsibilities of citizens.
• promote informed and responsible participation in civic life.
• foster the civic dispositions or traits of public and private character conducive
to the preservation and enhancement of American constitutional democracy.
• foster a reasoned commitment to the fundamental values and principles as
expressed in core documents, such as the Declaration of Independence and
the U.S. Constitution, that bind us together as a nation and provide a
common ground for working together.
• promote understanding of the essential role that the institutions and values of
civil society have historically played and continue today to play as
foundations of American constitutional democracy. Such understanding
includes the idea that the autonomous character of civil society protects
society from the abuse of power by government and is therefore a chief
support for constitutional government
Revitalized civic education can provide significant benefits for all Americans.
A nation-wide initiative can:
• increase understanding of the importance and relevance of politics and
government and of civil society to the daily lives of all Americans, e.g., their
safety and security, education, employment, health, recreation, and overall
quality of life.
• promote the development of civic character by fostering recognition of public
and private responsibilities and encouraging adherence to the values and
principles of American constitutional democracy.
• elevate the sense of civic efficacy, the impact citizens can have on policies at
all levels of government and on the character and purposes of the associations
and endeavors of civil society.
• build upon the natural idealism, energy, and hopes of American youth to
revitalize civic life.
• The importance of civic education should be communicated to the general
public through televised public forums, print media, and public service
television announcements. Parents, civic leaders, and the media are important
influences and have significant contributions to make to civic education, and
their support should be enlisted.
• A renewed emphasis on the common core of civic culture that unites
individuals from many ethnic, linguistic, religious, and social groups is needed.
We join with the U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform and other groups in
making this recommendation.
• Americans should be kept informed on a regular basis of the nation's civic
health through publication and wide dissemination of a index such as the one
proposed by the National Commission on Civic Renewal (1998). That index
could include, but not be limited to, such items as political participation, political
and social trust, membership in voluntary associations, community service,
achievement levels in civics and government, and other pertinent information.
• State legislatures, boards of education, schools, and parent groups should
reexamine the formal curricula and assessment practices to determine the
adequacy and effectiveness of their education programs and they should take
appropriate action to strengthen the formal curriculum and their assessment
• Every state should require all students to demonstrate mastery of basic civic
knowledge and concepts as a condition of high school graduation. We join with
the Commission on Civic Renewal and other groups in support of this
• To improve and professionalize teaching that the National Commission on
Teaching & America's Future say it is "time to get serious about standards for
both students and teachers." We concur with that National Commission that there
must be agreement on what teachers should know and be able to do in order to help
their students meet higher academic standards. Teacher licensing should be based
on demonstrated competence, including adequate academic preparation with a
major or minor in a field appropriate for civic education, tests of subject matter
knowledge, and command of skills and classroom strategies that research has
shown to be effective in civic education.
• To reverse the cycle of low expectations and low achievement, states and school
districts need to set standards which meet certain criteria. Standards should
• be clearly focused on academic achievement.
• be rigorous and substantive.
• reflect the best current scholarship in the disciplines from which the
substance of civics and government is drawn political science, political
philosophy, history, economics, law, and jurisprudence.
• state clearly what students should know and be able to do, and be expressed
in language understandable to young people, their parents, and the general
• be clear, specific benchmarks against which an individual's performance and
progress can be judged.
• Attention needs to be given to the assessment of civic education which presently
is inadequate in terms of both content and frequency.
• Despite the fact that National Education Goals 3 and 6 prominently feature
citizenship, the annual reports of the National Education Goals Panel have
yet to report on achievement in civic and government or on progress toward
• The National Assessment Governing Board is to be applauded for
undertaking the Civics Framework for the 1998 National Assessment of
Educational Progress (NAEP). However, the Board allowed ten years to
elapse between the present and the last assessment of civics. It is
recommended that in the future civics be assessed with the same frequency as
mathematics, science, reading, or any other core subject.
• Many states and districts mandate testing programs in mathematics,
reading, and language arts for elementary grades. Seldom is civic
education included in these mandates. Consequently, teachers spend
considerable more time working with students on math and reading and
neglect civic education. We recommend that all of the eight disciplines
identified in the Goals 2000: Educate America Act English,
mathematics, science, foreign languages, civic and government,
economics, arts, history, and geography be given attention.
• When assessments in civic education do occur, they are primarily in
secondary schools and generally take the form of multiple choice tests.
Such tests require students to select the correct answers from a number
of possibilities and are useful for determining students' knowledge and
understanding of basic facts and concepts. However, they fail to assess
students' acquisition of a variety of civic skills such as evaluating,
taking, and defending positions on political and civic issues, speak and
writing on these issues, and monitoring and influencing public policy.
Just months after taking office in 1989, President George Bush took a historic step. Bush
asked the nation's governors to gather to consider ways and means of improving education.
His call for a "summit" meeting was historic, because it was only the third time in history that
a president had convened the governors for a substantive meeting. (Jennings, 1998).
In the United States education has traditionally been the responsibility of each state. The
nation's governors, ever mindful of states' rights, have resented and resisted federal intrusions
into what they have considered their domain. At this "summit" meeting, however, the
governors conceded that education had to be improved and that the states by themselves could
not effect the improvements that commission after commission and study after study had said
was essential. Nor were the governors deaf to the clamor for educational reform coming from
parents, employers, and the media.
The chief executives of the 50 states, including Bill Clinton, then governor of Arkansas
and chairman of the National Governors Association education committee, believed that an
appropriate starting point was to get agreement on what it was that the nation's schools ought
to achieve. In their judgment the focus of America's schools should be sharpened and a
declaration of purposes or a statement of national goals set forth. The governors, however,
wanted the national goals to be more than verbiage or pious hopes. Progress toward the goals
was to be measured against high standards and by testing at national and state levels. The
standards were to specify what all students should know and be able to do when they
completed grades 4, 8, and 12. The plan was greeted with applause from many segments of
society parents, educators, employers, and legislators. Diane Ravitch, a long time proponent
of reform, was jubilant. She was later to say that she believed "what may well be an historic
development had taken place. "Unlike most other modern societies, this nation has never
established specific standards as goals for student achievement; those nations that do have
standards view them as invaluable means of ensuring both equity and excellence." (Ravitch,
In the hope of ensuring both equity and excellence, the National Governors Association
and the United States Congress moved forward, paying particular attention to civic education.
The text of the goals statement adopted by the National Governors Association in March, 1990
If the United States is to maintain a strong and responsible
democracy and a prosperous and growing economy into the next
century, it must be prepared to address and respond to major challenges
at home and in the world. A well-educated population is the key to our
future. Americans must be prepared to:....Participate knowledgeably in
our democracy and our democratic institutions;...Function effectively
in increasingly diverse communities and states and in a rapidly
shrinking world....Today a new standard of an educated citizenry is
required, one suitable for the next century....[All students] must
understand and accept the responsibilities and obligations of
In March, 1994 Congress passed the Goals 2000: Educate America Act (Public Law 103-227). Two of the eight national goals the law established deal specifically with civic education.
The National Education Goals
Goal 3: Student Achievement and Citizenship
By the year 2000, all students will leave grades 4, 8, and 12
having demonstrated competency over challenging subject matter
including English, mathematics, science, foreign languages, civics and
government, economics, arts, history, and geography, and every school
in America will ensure that all students learn to use their minds well, so
they may be prepared for responsible citizenship, further learning, and
productive employment in our Nation's modern economy.
All students will be involved in activities that promote and
demonstrate...ood citizenship, community service, and personal
Goal 6: Adult Literacy and Lifelong Learning
By the year 2000, every adult American will be literate and will
possess the knowledge and skills necessary to compete in a global
economy and exercise the rights and responsibilities of citizenship
As this report and those of other concerned groups of Americans make clear, we as a
people have not yet achieved the goals of equity and excellence in education that we have set
for ourselves. We know and have recognized from our founding that education for citizenship
is essential, if we are to maintain and improve our constitutional democracy; on that point
there is general, if not universal, agreement. We also know that a new standard of an educated
citizenry is needed, if we are to meet the challenges of the next century.
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