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Civics for the 21st Century

Our most recent major report on civic education reviews the state of K-12 civics in America and outlines the need for innovation and policy change.

Teaching for Democracy

CIRCLE serves as coordinator of the Teaching for Democracy Alliance (TFDA), which provides educators with tools to strengthen student learning about elections and voting.

Civics and Service

In 2019, our Director Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg offered expert testimony on the connections between civic education and service before the National Commission on Military, National and Public Service.

Overview

A robust civic education for all youth, particularly in K-12 schools, is vital to the health of our democracy because it can prepare young people to be informed and engaged members of their communities. However, quality and equality matter a great deal; civic development can occur through lived experience of democratic principles like fairness, justice, and equality (or lack thereof) as well as through learning key content and skills through courses and extracurricular activities. When civic education works well, it is an important pathway to civic engagement and political participation, and it carries additional developmental, academic, and economic benefits. While some assume that Civics is no longer taught in school, that is usually not the case—most American students receive some kind of instruction related to civics in schools. But K-12 civics varies greatly across the country, standards are uneven, and high-quality civic education programs only reach certain communities and/or certain groups of more privileged students.

Since our founding, CIRCLE has been involved in studying, promoting, evaluating, and in some cases helping educators implement high-quality civic learning. Our research has shown that good K-12 civic education must give students a comprehensive working knowledge of our systems of government, a commitment to service, awareness of various ways in which citizens participate in civic life, and skills to think critically and take informed action about matters that are important in our communities and society. These skills should encompass the myriad ways that young people can effect change, such as consuming and producing media, taking political action, and developing and implementing solutions to local problems.  Through these learning experiences, students develop a civic identity and civic efficacy that will allow them to find their passion and become lifelong civic actors.

Latest Research

Major Reports

The Republic is (Still) At Risk—and Civics Is Part of the Solution

Co-written by CIRCLE's current and former directors, this 2018 paper outlines the current state of K-12 civics and makes the case for civic education as one of the keys to repairing the fabric of our democracy.

All Together Now: Collaboration and Innovation for Youth Engagement

The final report of our 2013 Commission on Youth Voting and Civic Knowledge includes extensive research and recommendations about civic education.

Guardian of Democracy: The Civic Mission of Schools

This 2011 report co-authored by CIRCLE emphasizes schools' role and responsibility in educating for democracy and highlights the six "proven practices" of a high-quality civic education.

Themes and Areas of Research

Strong Civic Education Leads to Engagement

No young person is born with knowledge of how to vote, or with an innate understanding of how they can contribute to democracy. Civic education is key to youth growing as voters and developing as engaged community members. Our research has shown that young people who recalled having high-quality civic education experiences in school—such as simulations and discussions of current political issues—were more likely to vote, to form political opinions, and to know campaign issues.

Civic education that explicitly teaches about elections and voting is especially important, and can be especially lacking in many schools. As we discovered during the work of our Commission on Youth Voting and Civic Knowledge, we found that a significant percentage of teachers feel that they can’t discuss anything that might be interpreted as “political,” including voting. But teaching about elections can be done in a non-partisan way, and we highly encourage bringing non-partisan voting education into classrooms in order to create a culture of voting in our schools. We promote this work through the Teaching for Democracy Alliance.

 

Infographic of how civic education leads to youth engagement

 

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Education Standards

Laws and standards requiring or encouraging comprehensive civic education improve practice, yet such standards can be extremely uneven across the country. Some states have focused on a single course or high-stakes civics test that serves as a graduation requirement, while others either have no such requirement, or use the USCIS Citizenship Test (a multiple-choice test from a 100-item list). States also vary in whether and how they teach about political parties and ideologies. Research shows that teaching students about core principles on which political parties stand, and exploring what young people believe and value in politics, does not mold or alter young people’s ideology in either direction. Students from all communities should have these important learning opportunities.

Educational standards should mandate and support high-quality civics instruction that incorporates proven practices including debate about controversial political issues, exploration of alternative perspectives, service learning or other forms of experiential learning, and simulations of democratic processes. Educators must receive appropriate support; teachers need resources (time, funding to purchase curriculum, budget for field work); preparation (e.g., training in best service-learning practices); school-community connection; and importantly, protection from backlash to teach about elections and political issues.

Well-designed laws, combined with well-articulated learning standards and implementation plans, can help teachers understand the goal of civic education and how to prepare students for civic life while providing sufficient resources and institutional support to do so. Laws and standards are especially important in rural areas where school districts tend to be small and farther away from service providers, and where social studies teachers tend to be isolated from peers who could share resources and provide support. Laws and standards are equally important in districts that struggle with budget deficits, because additional funding can provide teachers with training, as well as in large districts where they may create positions to manage tasks, such as finding community partners that can serve as service-learning sites, at a larger scale.

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Civic Skills and Action Civics

Facts and knowledge about politics and civic life are best learned by doing, and an effective civic education must give students the real-world civic information and skills that they will need to participate in civic life and opportunities to learn as they practice them. Many civic skills, like team-building, deliberation, collaboration, critical thinking, and communication are also valuable to a student's academic and professional development and they are valued in today's workforce.

Many of these skills can be learned and practiced through pedagogical approaches like action civics, in which students select, research, undertake, and reflect on a civic initiative in their community. Discussions and projects centered on issues they feel passionate about help students understand the connections between the things that matter to them and the political processes that shapes the world around them. Our research has helped make the case for action civics, CIRCLE is a founding member of the National Action Civics Collaborative.

One other civic skill of increasing importance is media literacy: the ability for young people to access, analyze, evaluate, create, and act using all forms of communication. As the news and information ecosystem becomes more complex and harder to navigate, it is imperative for young people to learn how to understand and assess what they see in the media—and to create media of their own in order to participate in and influence conversations on politics and civic life. Our research has found that teachers understand the importance of teaching media literacy but many need support to properly do so.

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