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Reforming Civic Education: Three Case Studies

In a new fact sheet and paper, we explore how Florida, Hawaii, and Tennessee are approaching civic education in order to better prepare young people for democracy.

According to research summarized in our 2013 report “All Together Now: Collaboration and Innovation for Youth Engagement,” young people who take a well-designed and well-taught high school civics course—one that encourages thoughtful discussion and the development of civic skills—are more knowledgeable and more likely to engage as citizens in the future.

Unfortunately, civic education in the U.S. still leaves much to be desired. In the last few years, several states have taken up civic education policy reforms. These reforms exemplify diverse approaches to improving civics instruction and the challenges faced by state officials in passing and implementing effective reforms.

Recently, CIRCLE did case studies of three such states:

  • In Florida, the Justice Sandra Day O’Connor Civics Education Act passed in 2010, mandating a high-stakes standardized test in civics.
  • In Hawaii, a required “Participation in Democracy” course places a strong emphasis on experiential education: the requirement was passed in 2006 and an effort to repeal it was defeated.
  • In Tennessee, recent legislation mandates project-based civics assessments at the middle and high school levels.

Today, we release a short fact sheet that describes each bill or proposal in detail, including the advantages and drawbacks identified by both proponents and detractors. We also release a longer paper that includes interviews with prominent stakeholders in each state and takes an initial look at the process behind each proposal and some of the issues faced by the educators tasked with implementing them. Both products were made possible through the support of the S.D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation.

While Florida, Tennessee, and Hawaii are using different approaches to try to improve civic education, there are important commonalities that advocates and policymakers in other states would be wise to consider. In all three cases—though to varying degrees—the combination of grassroots activism and high-level support from current or former legislators was key to achieving the desired outcome. All three states are also now tackling implementation challenges such as a lack of funding, scarce professional development, and weak communication between state and local authorities.