Responsible civic participation is down among Americans. It’s up to schools to reverse the trend.
The 2016 presidential campaign underscored some troubling tendencies within our democracy: the extreme polarization of the electorate, the dismissal of people with opposing views, the failure of many voters to focus on substantive policy issues, and the widespread acceptance and circulation of one-sided and factually erroneous information. On top of that, the decades before the election saw a disturbing decline in civic participation. The proportion of eligible voters who actually vote is substantially lower than in most other developed countries, the number of residents who actively participate in local community activities has dramatically declined, and Americans are avoiding basic civic responsibilities like jury service.
These trends raise the question of whether our nation’s schools have been fulfilling their critical civic mission to prepare young people to be good citizens who are capable of safeguarding our democracy and stewarding our nation toward a greater realization of its democratic values. The founders of the nation knew that, for the new republic to be maintained, access to education would need to be vastly expanded in order to develop citizens who would protect and nurture the new democracy. As John Adams put it: “The education of a nation instead of being confined to a few schools and universities for the instruction of the few, must become the national care and expense for the formation of the many” (as cited in McCullough, 2001, p.364).
Horace Mann, founder of the 19th-century “common school” movement that established a universal system of public schools, also stressed the primacy of preparation for citizenship:
Education must be universal . . . With us, the qualification of voters is as important as the qualification of governors, and even comes first, in the natural order . . . The theory of our government is — not that all men, however unfit, shall be voters — but that every man, by the power of reason and the sense of duty, shall become fit to be a voter. Education must bring the practice as nearly as possible to the theory. (Mann, 1855, p. xi)
Over the past half century, the scope of American democracy has expanded to include a more diverse population and a greater understanding of the need to respect and embrace the needs and aspirations of all our citizens, yet the schools’ civic focus has eroded, leaving our democratic institutions substantially at risk.
Interestingly, a series of recent cases regarding the adequacy of funding for public schools has led state courts to examine the meaning of state constitutional clauses — most of which were written in the 18th and 19th centuries — that guarantee all students a “thorough and efficient education,” a “sound basic education,” or a “high quality” or “adequate education.” The courts have consistently emphasized the continuing importance of educating students to be effective citizens. For example, the New York Court of Appeals held that the purpose of public education today is to provide students the skills they need to “function productively as civic participants capable of voting and serving on a jury” (Campaign for Fiscal Equity, Inc. v. New York State, 2003).
Schools must create environments that respect and harness both pluralism and individualism while adopting instructional practices that promote civic agency, critical inquiry, and participatory experiences.
Overall, the highest courts in at least 32 states have explicitly stated that preparation for capable citizenship is the primary purpose or a primary purpose of the education clause of their state constitutions. (The other 18 state courts have not spoken on the issue.) The courts have not, however, enforced these understandings. The primary focus of the judges has been to ensure that state funding is sufficient to enable schools to provide meaningful educational opportunities to all students in a general sense, and their remedial decrees have not focused at all on education for citizenship.
The decline of civic preparation in the schools
In a 2012 report, the U.S. Department of Education acknowledged that civic education is no longer a core aspect of most schools’ curricula:
[U]nfortunately, civic learning and democratic engagements are add-ons rather than essential parts of the core academic mission in too many schools and on too many college campuses today. Many elementary and secondary schools are pushing civics and service-learning to the sidelines, mistakenly treating education for citizenship as a distraction from preparing students for college-level mathematics, English and other core subjects. (U.S. Department of Education, 2012)
Consistent with this neglect of civic education, Americans’ knowledge of basic political facts is strikingly low. For example, on the 2014 civics exam administered by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), only 23% of a national sample of 18-year-olds performed at or above a “proficient” level (NAEP, 2014). On other surveys, less than one-third of 8th graders could identify the purpose of the Declaration of Independence, and less than a fifth of high school seniors could explain how citizen participation benefits democracy (Gould et al., 2011).
Given this lack of political awareness among our citizens, it is not surprising that relatively few Americans vote. In the 2016 presidential election, only 56.8% of Americans who were eligible to vote chose to do so. This means that nearly 100 million Americans failed to go to the polls. In the 2014 midterm elections, turnout was even worse, with only 36.7% of eligible voters casting ballots (McDonald, n.d.). Overall, America’s youngest voters have moved toward less engagement over time, as 18- to 24-year-olds’ voting rates have dropped from 50.9% in 1964 to 38.0% in 2012 (File, 2014).
There are many interrelated explanations for the widespread decline in civic preparation in the schools. They include:
- A loss of faith in traditional institutions, beginning during the Vietnam War era;
- The tendency of many schools to focus on basic reading and math to the detriment of the humanities, social studies, civics, and the development of higher-order thinking skills and habits of mind;
- The growing use of new media that allow misinformation to quickly spread;
- Teacher and administrator reluctance to discuss controversial issues, and
- Inequitable and inadequate funding, especially for urban and rural schools serving large numbers of students in poverty.
The gaps in civic knowledge and civic preparation are particularly acute for Black students and students living in poverty, creating what Harvard professor Meira Levinson (2012) has called a “civic empowerment gap.” This difference stems from a variety of factors, including extensive resource disparities and distrust of civic institutions stemming from past and present discrimination.
Addressing the decline in civic preparation
Despite general agreement on the significance of civic preparation, school officials and policy makers have made few real efforts to deal with its decline. Certainly, preparing students for civic participation in a society beset by ideological polarization, racial inequality, accelerating economic gaps, rapid demographic shifts, and changing social norms is a formidable challenge. Our traditional notions of education for citizenship were formed in times when society’s values and expectations addressed the needs of a limited segment of the population and the change occurred at a more manageable pace. That is not the case today.
Civic participation — whether as voters, jurors, or people working together to make a change in the community — requires a working knowledge of many subjects, including history, politics, economics, science, and technology.
Still, schools continue to be the main institutional setting in our society where people from diverse political and social backgrounds can come together in a venue that can promote and reward rational discussion and tolerance for differing views. If schools are to foster these essential elements of civic preparation, however, states and districts must adopt policies and pedagogical approaches that recognize current political, social, economic, and cultural realities. Schools must create environments that respect and harness both pluralism and individualism while adopting instructional practices that promote civic agency, critical inquiry, and participatory experiences. They must capitalize on the positive possibilities of the internet and the new media. And they must provide equitable educational opportunities.
This responsibility applies not just to public schools, but to private ones as well. Almost a century ago, in Pierce v. Society of Sisters (1925), the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the right of parents to send their students to private schools but made it clear that this right was conditioned on the authority of the state to “supervise and examine” private schools to determine that “certain studies plainly essential to good citizenship must be taught.” Most (but not all) states have adopted statutes that require private schools to provide instruction in social studies, history, civics, and other subjects that is “substantially equivalent” to that taught in the public schools, but few states actively enforce these laws.
Strategies for civic education
Many educators and policy makers today are unsure of how to deal with the complex challenge of teaching responsible citizenship in a diverse society, but there are effective strategies and practical models for preparing students for civic participation. The first step is to determine what preparation students need. Most scholars, educators, and policy makers who are concerned about these issues agree that effective civic participation requires (1) basic civic knowledge of government, history, law, and democracy; (2) verbal and critical reasoning skills; (3) social and participatory experiences, and (4) responsible character traits and acceptance of democratic values and dispositions (Carnegie Corp & CIRCLE, 2003; Gould et al., 2011).
Civic participation — whether as voters, jurors, or people working together to make a change in the community — requires a working knowledge of many subjects, including history, politics, economics, science, and technology. The educational priorities established in the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) and now perpetuated in the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) stress competency in basic literacy and mathematics, but not in civics, history, world languages, social studies, economics, and the arts. Particularly in schools with constrained resources, what gets tested is what gets taught; the lower-priority status of civics, history, social studies, economics, and the arts in state accountability systems has meant that schools have substantially reduced the time students spend engaged in these areas.
In the mid-20th century, three civics-related courses were common in high school: civics, problems of democracy, and American government. Today, civics and problems of democracy courses have largely disappeared. In many states, no civics courses at all are required; in others, the only mandate is for a one-semester course in American government.
Many American students today are barely attaining satisfactory basic verbal skills. The verbal proficiency of students living in poverty and students of color is especially worrisome. For example, on the 2017 NAEP assessments, 40% of Black 8th-grade students and 33% of Hispanic students had below basic scores in reading, compared with 16% of White students. In 4th-grade reading, 46% of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch scored below basic, compared with 18% of other students (NAEP, 2018). Development of basic literacy skills is not, of course, the end of the matter. Many American students who have basic literacy skills have yet to master the critical-reasoning and deliberation skills needed to appraise one-sided or false information, assess policy alternatives, and enter into fruitful conversation with people who have opposing views.
Developing skills for deliberative democracy begins with exposing students to controversial ideas in the classroom. Most teachers today, however, shy away from taking on this challenge. Almost 80% of social studies classes do not discuss social problems and controversial issues (Hess, 2009, p.162). Yet, as Diana Hess (2009) puts it:
Democratic education without controversial issues discussion would be like a forest without trees or fish without water, or a symphony without sound. Why? Because controversy about the nature of public good and how to achieve it, along with how to mediate among competing democratic values, are intrinsic parts of democracy. If there is no controversy, there is no democracy. It is as simple as that. (p. 35)
Accelerating use of new digital media presents an additional challenge. Schools need to create and adopt curricula and instructional practices that enable all students to develop media-literacy skills to identify sources of information, distinguish accurate from fake facts, and engage in deliberative online discussions.
Mastering the pedagogical skills to provide this kind of instruction requires effective training and professional development. Yet high-quality professional development that enables teachers to prepare students for civic participation is almost nonexistent in American schools today (Burgess, 2015).
An extensive body of research holds that experiential learning opportunities, such as those provided in extracurricular activities and community-service experiences, have a significant positive impact on long-term civic involvement. Participation in community-service activities directly acquaints students with community problems and political issues, and it provides a network of people with whom to discuss civic issues. And collaborative experiences such as drama productions, concerts, sports teams, school newspapers, debate teams, and the like are conducive to breaking down cultural barriers, facilitating meaningful communication, and uncovering common interests among people from varied income, racial, religious, and ethnic groups.
Although most schools today provide a range of extracurricular opportunities, a good number — primarily those attended predominantly by students living in poverty and students of color — do not. In addition, in times of recession or fiscal constraint, extracurricular and experiential activities are often the first items to be cut back or eliminated.
Most contemporary educators who are concerned about civic preparation believe that schools also need to promote certain character values and civic dispositions. They emphasize that democratic citizens need to be responsible, honest, hard-working, caring, and have the courage to do what is right and just, even in difficult circumstances. In addition, most contemporary educators and policy makers also emphasize equality, tolerance, due process, and respect for the rule of law as important democratic values. Tolerance, combined with critical thinking, is especially important in fostering deliberative discussions that prepare students for civic participation in a diverse democratic society.
Traditional values like patriotism can be taught in a way that rings true to contemporary issues and contemporary values. For example, a distinguished panel of scholars and educators at a recent conference of the Stanford University Center on Adolescence articulated three aspects of patriotism that teachers should address: “1) felt attachment to society and to the ideals that the United States has traditionally espoused; 2) willingness to criticize and change aspects of the country that do not live up to those values; and 3) commitment to make personal sacrifices, when necessary, for those ideals and for the common good” (Malin et al., 2014).
To prepare students to function productively as civic participants in our increasingly varied American society, schools need to not merely tolerate diversity but to embrace it.
Diversity, equity, and the democratic ideal
To prepare students to function productively as civic participants in our increasingly varied American society, schools need to not merely tolerate diversity but to embrace it. This means not abandoning our durable American institutions and important democratic values, but combining them with mores and values of the heterogeneous groups within our population in a way that promotes the common good of all. Embracing diversity also means promoting effective racial and class integration to the maximum extent feasible under existing law and pressing for new laws that will move us toward greater desegregation and more equitable educational opportunities for all students.
Schools cannot fully accomplish the goal of civic preparation unless our society productively addresses the legal and policy context in which schools operate. Positive intergroup relations cannot flourish if students are treated unequally or if some students lack important opportunities that students who attend other schools regularly enjoy. In 23 states, the poorest school districts receive fewer per capita dollars in state and local funds than affluent school districts, even though the students in poorer districts have greater needs (Ushomirsky & Williams, 2015). Given our nation’s increasingly diverse school settings, without equal and sufficient resources, “common” schooling that can truly prepare students for democratic functioning will remain an unrealized ideal.
Burgess, R. (2015, March). Civic education professional development: The lay of the land. Washington, DC: American Enterprise Institute.
Campaign for Fiscal Equity, Inc. v. New York State, 801 N.E.2d 326, 332 (N.Y. 2003).
Carnegie Corporation of New York and CIRCLE. (2003). The civic mission of schools. New York, NY: Authors.
File, T. (2014). Young-adult voting: An analysis of presidential elections, 1964–2012. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Commerce, U.S. Census Bureau.
Gould, J., Jamieson, K.H., Levine, P., McConnell, T., & Smith, D.B. (Eds.) (2011). Guardian of democracy: The civic mission of schools. Philadelphia, PA: Leonore Annenberg Institute for Civics of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania.
Hess, D.E. (2009). Controversy in the classroom: The democratic power of discussion. New York, NY: Routledge.
Levinson, M. (2012). No citizen left behind. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Malin, H., Ballard, P.J., Attai, M.L., Colby, A., & Damon, W. (2014). Youth civic development & education: A conference consensus report. Palo Alto, CA: Center on Adolescence, Stanford University.
Mann, H. (1855). Lectures on education. Boston, MA: Ide & Dutton.
McCullough, D. (2001). John Adams. New York, NY: Touchstone.
McDonald, M.P. (n.d.). Voter turnout demographics. United States Election Project. Gainesville, FL: University of Florida. www.electproject.org/home/voter-turnout/demographics
National Assessment of Educational Progress. (2014). 2014 Civics Assessment. Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics. www.nationsreportcard.gov/hgc_2014/#civics.
National Assessment of Educational Progress. (2018). NAEP Data Explorer. Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics. www.nationsreportcard.gov/ndecore/xplore/NDE.
Pierce, Governor of Oregon, et al. v. Society of the Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary, 268 U.S. 510 (1925).
U.S. Department of Education. (2012). Advancing civic learning and engagement in democracy: A road map and call to Action. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office.
Ushomirsky, N. & Williams, D. (2015, March). Funding gaps 2015: Too many states still spend less on educating students who need the most. Washington, DC: Education Trust.
Citation: Rebell, M.A. (2018). Preparation for capable citizenship: The schools’ primary responsibility. Phi Delta Kappan, 100 (3), 18-23.