This year, students and teachers are returning to school against the backdrop of one of our country’s most exciting events – a presidential election. Every four years, the election provides the perfect opportunity to show young people how our government works, and to equip them with the skills they need to effectively participate in it.
But we must seize this nationwide “teachable moment.”
High-quality civic learning used to be a staple of every state’s education system, but today, many have pushed it aside to make more room for math, science, and language arts instruction. This has created a civic education and engagement crisis among our young people.
Simply put, they do not know the underlying principles of American democracy.
The most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) shows that our country’s eighth graders do not understand our democratic system of government, a trend that has endured over the past few administrations of the examination.
According to this test, known as the Nation’s Report Card, only 18% of these students are proficient in history, and fewer than a quarter are proficient in civics. Worse still, fewer than one-third of students tested knew that “the government of the United States should be a democracy” is a political belief shared by most people in this country. The same proportion could not correctly identify the historical purposes of the Declaration of Independence.
Without this fundamental knowledge, today’s young people are ill-equipped to run our republic when the time comes for them to inherit it.
We are already seeing the effects of this civic educational malpractice: The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) at Tufts University has shown that only 19.9 percent of 18- to 29-year olds cast ballots in the 2014 elections. That was the lowest youth turnout rate ever recorded in a federal election.
This is a disgrace.
Every young person needs to learn how our government works at the national, state, and local level, and how he or she can be a part of it.
But more textbooks, lectures, and worksheets are not the answer. If we’re going to inspire young people to become involved, we must look to innovative alternatives. Many wonderful new programs exist, and we must support them.
For example, iCivics teaches students how government works through immersion in a game called Win the White House. Win the White House challenges players to run their own presidential campaign. It teaches kids how the election works by letting them take charge. They create a candidate, debate the issues, and execute a 50-state media and fundraising strategy, all to earn those critical 270 electoral votes.
Policy leaders have correctly recognized the importance of science, technology, engineering, and math to prepare our nation’s students for the jobs of the future. But if we ignore civics and social studies, we risk our very system of government. Civic education cannot be an afterthought.
Citizenship is a skill that must be taught with the same energy and devotion we give to reading, math, and the pursuit of scientific knowledge. Sure, all students must learn these other important subjects, but they must also learn how our government works, and how they can participate in it; they must learn how they can accomplish things themselves.
We know that more focus on civics can have an almost immediate effect. In states such as Florida, which passed a mandate requiring a middle school civics course and assessment, student performance has improved each year since it was fully implemented in 2014. Whereas nationally 23 percent of students showed proficiency in civics on the NAEP exam, some 65 percent of Florida middle school students graded out as proficient on Florida’s state civic exam. We expect that number to grow.
While most states still have some sort of civics requirement, the amount and quality of civics teaching is far from adequate, and usually focuses on factual knowledge. Unless more states follow Florida’s lead and create a movement to promote greater access to robust civic education, students are not going to learn what they need to know about how our government works so that they can one day run it.
There shouldn’t be anything that we care more about than educating our nation’s young people about our government. Good civic education will help them exercise their vote, and participate in our democracy, in an informed manner. It is our job to find better, more innovative ways to reach them. The future of our republic depends on it.
This post is made possible by the courtesy of iCivics, which was founded by Justice Sandra Day O'Connor in 2009. iCivics teaches students how government works by having them experience it directly. Through their games, the player steps into any role – a judge, a member of Congress, a community activist fighting for local change, even the President of the United States – and does the job they do. Educational video games allow for concepts to happen to us. They convey information while teaching skills for effective civic engagement.