How States Can Strengthen K-12 Civics Education


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This post comes from Shawn Healy, senior director of policy and advocacy at iCivics. Views expressed in guest posts are those of the author.

In the United States, civic education prepares each successive generation for informed, effective and lifelong engagement in the nation’s constitutional democracy. My analysis of data recently published as part of Philanthropy for Active Civic Engagement’s Civic Language Perceptions Project, finds that registered voters who reported taking a civics class were more likely to rate a plethora of civic terms positively, including 26.4% greater support for “civility” and 12.7% for “democracy” itself.

Those who took civics classes were also more likely to rate voting, volunteering, public service, attending public meetings and jury duty as important to ensuring a functioning democracy. Moreover, civics class completion correlated with higher voter turnout in the 2020 general election and greater news attentiveness.

Since the Council of Chief State School Officers reports that 44% of school districts cut back social studies instructional time over the past two decades, states have an opportunity to ensure access to high-quality civic learning opportunities throughout students’ K-12 experience. According to a 50-state policy scan of K-12 civics by the CivXNow Coalition (a project of iCivics), 38 states require a stand-alone high school civics course. Among those states, six do so for an entire year. Seven states have a stand-alone civics course in middle school, but civics and social studies is oftentimes missing in the early grades.

Currently, there is heightened interest in civics education in state legislatures, as evidenced by more than 200 bills impacting civic education in 43 states. In fact, in partnership with the CivXNow Coalition, states have made significant progress over the past two years in adopting bipartisan legislation to strengthen K-12 civic education.

Some examples include the passage of middle school course requirements in Indiana and New Jersey, high school requirements in Oregon and Rhode Island, an experiential civic learning pilot program in Utah and the establishment of permanent state civic education commissions in Georgia and Indiana. Illinois and Nevada strengthened civics content requirements, and Florida and Virginia passed laws to encourage experiential civics learning for students.

However, many states may still seek support in this work. Considerations in the CivXNow Coalition’s state legislative examples include universal, equitable access to civics including a year-long high school course, a semester-long middle school course and dedicated instructional time for civics in grades K-5. Civics courses could also include a project-based component, and schools could add student recognition on their high school diplomas for excellence in civics coursework and projects. A politically and geographically diverse group of eight states currently offer such civic seals programs.

States may begin by fostering schoolwide commitments to civics through school and district recognition programs, and districts can develop K-12 civic learning plans as they do in other core subject areas. Finally, states can ensure that the aforementioned policies are implemented equitably by establishing or empowering an existing in-state entity to assist teachers, schools and districts, and by creating a designated state fund that can attract both public and private resources for policy implementation.

Despite the deep political polarization gripping our country, red, blue and purple states have proven there’s a nonpartisan path to strengthen K-12 civic education and reverse concerning  democratic backsliding trajectories. The CivXNow Coalition invites your insights, expertise and collaboration in this effort to educate the next generation on the nation’s constitutional democracy so they can take their place as informed and engaged participants in our society.

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