Invest in Civic Education. If Not Now, When?
The first few weeks of 2021 have taught a seemingly ongoing collective civics lesson on key aspects of our unique constitutional federal republic: Running and certifying elections, the inner workings of the Electoral College, checks and balances between the three branches of the federal government, and the peaceful transfer of power, just to name a few. For many, the January 6 attack on the US Capitol also exposed just how fragile our civic institutions can be. In our hyperpolarized political environment, a common understanding of fighting for equality and justice, respectfully engaging with others, and preserving the common good can seem all but lost.
At the same time, how little many of us know or understand about how our government works is also being revealed. And year after year, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) Civics Assessment results have confirmed that, in fact, Americans are underprepared when it comes to understanding civics. In 2018, less than 25% of eighth-grade students taking the NAEP assessment scored proficient. On the last NAEP Civics Assessment for 12th graders, only 24% scored proficient. A 2019 survey of K–12 social studies teachers found that only one in five felt well prepared to support their students’ civic learning.
Simply put, civics has not been given the space it deserves—and needs—in K–12 education. But in 2018, Massachusetts legislation was passed to directly address this dearth of civics teaching and learning. This legislation, along with the updated 2018 History and Social Science Framework, requires K–12 students across Massachusetts to receive a comprehensive civic education that includes knowledge of government and civic institutions, skills in inquiring about and explaining issues in civic life, and taking informed actions for civic change. A civics course is now required in 8th grade, and all 8th graders and high school students must participate in a student-led civics project.
The legislation and framework are a good start, but for them to become reality, educators need more support. The State of Civic Education in Massachusetts, a study commissioned by the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education that I co-led with researchers at CIRCLE at Tuft University’s Tisch College, found that only 44% of K–12 teachers we surveyed reported knowing how the new Framework would impact their instruction and only 22% of middle and high school social studies surveyed reported knowing how the new civics project legislation would impact their instruction. Furthermore, 42% of teachers reported having never had civics-focused professional development opportunities. Only one in three teachers had opportunities to attend civics-focused professional development at least once a year. This lack of awareness, learning opportunities, and time to teach civics was even more pronounced for elementary school teachers.
Still, hope abounds. Our study also showed that the vast majority of teachers in our study said they believed in the critical importance of civic education. And, when given resources and ongoing professional development, they reported teaching civics with greater confidence and frequency.
Elected officials in Massachusetts have required that civics be taught in a way that facilitates students’ understanding of government, skills of inquiry and taking informed action, and dispositions towards equity and justice. But policy alone will not meaningfully change teacher practices. We the people also have a role to play in providing educators an ecosystem of support, from professionals who provide educator training to school and district leaders who create schedules and budgets to parents and community members who support schools and teachers in making civics a part of the curriculum.
As we look forward to turning the page with a peaceful transition of power with the inauguration of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, let’s also make it our civic duty to actively support comprehensive civic education. The future of our republic may depend on it.
Ariel Tichnor-Wagner is a lecturer of educational leadership and policy studies. She focuses on education policy and politics, with an emphasis on policy and program implementation, continuous improvement research, school improvement, civics education, and global citizenship education.