The Failure of US Civics Education

by Kathy Pahel // Published May 31, 2012

"An education that teaches you to understand something about the world has done only half of the assignment. The other half is to teach you to do something about making the world a better place."  

--Johnetta Cole

Today, the United States falls short of its goal to create generation after generation of educated citizens to ensure the continuation of our democracy. Once the founding motivation for the creation of public schools, civics education has fallen into the shadows of math and science. It is taught in a passive learning environment, and lacks any development of critical thinking essential to the democratic process. Without a thorough revamping of our education system, civics education will continue to be sidelined and our democracy will suffer

Civics Education is on the Backburner

With the current focus on test scores, civics education has receded into the background of public education. According to a 2010 study by the American Enterprise Institute, seven out of ten teachers say social studies are a lower priority because of pressure to show progress on statewide math and language arts tests. Even in states where civics education is tested, it pales in comparison to the testing of other subjects. For example, in the state of California, students are instructed in social science and history during four grade levels, and tested on them twice. In eighth grade, out of seventy-five questions only one-third of materials relate to the Constitution, the other two-thirds ask about unrelated sixth and seventh grade state curriculum standards. In eleventh grade, ten out of sixty questions relate to American political and social thought. Further, the failure to reach proficiency on the eighth or eleventh grade assessments carries no real ramification for the students. If social studies standards are meant to prepare students for democratic citizenship, they fall short. 



Passive Learning is Unacceptable

In addition to being sidelined by state testing, civics education has fallen into a state of passive learning. When civics education is measured, taught, and tested, it is based upon factual knowledge on a true/false or fill-in-the-bubble test format. This method of measurement is likely contributing to the passive environment of the classroom. The graph to the right shows the results of the2010 Civic Assessment by the National Assessment of Educational Progress. It reveals that the most common civics classroom activities are passive-discussions, readings, or tests-while the least common activities are active-role playing, writing letters, or taking field trips. The activities practiced in civics classrooms do not adequately prepare students for their role as engaged citizens. Reading and discussing the role of Congress is not as effective as taking a field trip to the state capitol, or creating a mock congress within the classroom. Learning about low youth turnout also does not reverse the problem. However, participating in mock elections not only teaches the process of voting in a more tangible manner, but also cultivates a culture of voting.

Lack of Critical Thinking

In addition to stifling the culture of democracy amongst the youth, the passive learning environment encourages students to submissively accept the current system instead of striving to improve it. If students are only expected to read out of a book, discuss it, and bubble in the correct answer, where will our future leaders develop critical thinking skills? If our students are encouraged to memorize facts about the past instead of learning to think for themselves, how will they deal with challenges of the future? The fate of democracy lies in the future leaders of our nation, but we are failing to give students a valuable knowledge of civics, and are doing even less to prepare them for their role as active citizens. As Robert Hutchins warned, "The death of democracy is not likely to be an assassination from ambush. It will be a slow extinction from apathy, indifference, and underourishment." To save our democracy from the threat of civic apathy, we must instruct students to be engaged citizens, through an active classroom that is respected as a core subject of public schools.