Center for Civic Education

Research and Evaluation

The Civic Education of American Youth: From State Policies to School District Practices

A Report by the Policy Research Project on Civic Education Policies and Practices 1999

Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs, University of Texas at Austin
Policy Research Project Report, Number 133
Project Directed by Kenneth W. Tolo

Executive Summary

Civic education plays an essential role in strengthening our democratic society, preparing informed citizens and promoting their participation in the civic life of their communities. Although this responsibility is borne by all members of a civil society, a special responsibility is placed on schools and educators. Students from kindergarten through grade 12 need to be provided with the necessary learning experiences to enable them to become informed and actively participating citizens.

Lack of civic engagement and civic literacy among American youth is widespread, however. Students often do not have the civic knowledge, the higher-order civic intellectual skills, and the civic dispositions necessary to connect civics facts and concepts to the responsibilities of citizenship. Although many state policymakers and educators give lip service to the importance of civic education in the schools, in reality state policies and school practices often fail to provide students with the civic education they deserve.

This project explores state K-12 civic education policies and related requirements nationwide, as well as factors that shape K-12 civic education policies and practices in school districts and schools. The first two chapters of this report provide the national and state contexts for content standards in core subject areas, including civics; review state constitutional provisions and statutes that promote civic education; and examine how social studies standards, assessment, teacher certification, and other state policies build on these provisions and statutes. Recognizing the centrality of state standards, Chapters 3 through 5 examine the extent to which the civics content in state standards promotes civic dispositions, civic intellectual skills, and civic knowledge, respectively. Chapters 6 through 11 examine several influences on civic education at the district level: standards; instructional materials; assessment; professional development; extracurricular and co-curricular activities; and individuals, organizations, and funding. Chapter 12 provides recommendations for developing sound, sustainable state and school district civics commitments that ensure systematic attention to civic education in grades K-12. Key findings from the project report follow.

State Civic Education Policies and Requirements

Over one-fourth of all state constitutions state that a system of public instruction is required because an informed and capable citizenry is vital to the preservation of a free and democratic government. More than one-half of all states have statutes explicitly addressing civic education. While all but one state has implemented K-12 content standards in at least one subject area, only three states have created separate state standards devoted solely to civic education. Another 23 states have an explicit section covering civics topics within their social studies standards, while 18 states have civics topics interspersed throughout their social studies standards. Students must take a government or civics course in high school in 29 states.

At the same time, civics topics are tested statewide in 31 states, but in only three of these states are tests dedicated to civics topics alone. Another ten states and the District of Columbia expect to begin testing in the near future, while nine states have no plans to assess students in civic education. A large majority of states make little distinction between teachers of history, economics, and civics with respect to teacher certification, and only 2 1 states report that teachers of civics are required to complete additional in-service training during their careers in order to maintain their certification to teach.

Promoting Civic Education in State Standards

States are increasingly using content standards as their most explicit statement of what should be taught in the classroom. Most states' standards include some civics topics, but the standards rarely give all components of civic education the attention they deserve.

Promoting Civic Dispositions in State Standards

Many states' social studies standards encourage a school environment that makes the development of students' civic dispositions more likely. Researchers elected to assess how state standards promote civic dispositions by examining how explicitly standards' introductory statements of purpose highlight the importance of civic education and how clearly state standards are organized to present civics topics to educators, parents, and students. Of the 43 states with social studies standards, 32 highlight the importance of civic education in the standards' introductory statements of purpose. However, many states (12) use organizational formats for their standards that makes civics content relatively hard to find and use.

Promoting Civic Intellectual Skills in State Standards

Ensuring that state standards promote the use and application of higher-order thinking skills is closely related to ensuring that standards promote students' informed and effective civic participation; However, on average, the civics content in states' social studies standards overemphasizes the lower-order thinking skills of identifying and describing positions relative to the mote challenging skills of explaining and analyzing a position. Civics statements requiring students to evaluate, take, and defend positions--the highest-order level of thinking--are the least prevalent in most state standards.

Promoting Civic Knowledge in State Standards

Civic knowledge is the content dimension of civic education. Without civic knowledge, there is no foundation for applying civic intellectual skills or civic dispositions. Researchers comprehensively analyzed standards in seven states (California, Florida, Indiana, Nebraska, New York, Ohio, and Texas) to evaluate the thoroughness with which civics content is covered in a state's social studies standards (relative to the five organizing questions and their subtopics in the National Standards for Civics and Government); the relative attention given to various civics topics (again using the national standards framework); and the specificity of the civics topics covered. The civics statements in the seven states' social studies standards exhibit varying degrees of thoroughness, attention to civics content, and specificity.

Influences on Civic Education at the District Level

In addition to describing state policies, this report examines how such policies influence civic education at the district level in seven states (California, Florida, Indiana, Nebraska, New York, Ohio, and Texas). Project researchers met with state, district, and school administrators; teachers; students; university faculty in teacher education programs; and other community leaders. In addition, researchers surveyed secondary social studies teachers and district social studies coordinators in 14 districts in these states.

Influences of State Standards

Most districts consider state social studies standards when creating their curricula, and many offer courses with civics content. Nevertheless, a large number of secondary social studies teachers are somewhat or completely unfamiliar with their states' standards; only one-fourth of the responding teachers reported being extremely familiar with these standards. Teachers also are unaware or confused about district and school civic education policies. In every district examined, civic disposition is given attention less often and less strongly in courses with civics content than are civic participation, knowledge, and skills. This is in part a reflection of the inadequacies of the civics content in state standards noted above, but it also reflects the state policies that accompany standards.

Influences of Instructional Materials

While many factors influence civics instruction, instructional materials play a key role in shaping students' civic knowledge, intellectual and participatory skills, and dispositions. Even though states and districts have varying degrees of freedom in their textbook adoption policies, selection of textbooks with civics content is surprisingly uniform across the districts visited. Nevertheless, many teachers are turning to supplemental materials (especially those published by the Center for Civic Education) and, increasingly, the Internet and the World Wide Web to kindle civics interest in students.

Influences of Assessment

State-level assessment policies are one of the most influential factors affecting civic education at the district level. Most states that currently assess civics topics do so within a more general test of social studies or other topics. In states that already have statewide assessments in subjects other than civics, the assessments clearly drive resource allocation. What is assessed receives the time, attention, and funding; consequently, testing other subjects but not testing civics ensures that civics content will be marginalized and virtually ignored by many school administrators and teachers.

Influences of Professional Development

Policies affecting the pre-service certification of teachers and their continuing professional development often diminish the quality of civics instruction. Prospective teachers and professors of education alike generally recognize civics as an important component of K-12 education, but state certification requirements that do not explicitly highlight civic education lower the priority given to teacher education and certification in civics. In-service and other professional development opportunities provide teachers with information about incorporating technology into their civics instruction, improving their coverage of all civic education components, and implementing new state statutes or district policies and practices relating to civic education.

Influences of Extracurricular and Co-Curricular Activities

Extracurricular and co-curricular activities play a critical role in civic education. Interactive, participatory programs, whether or not they are tied formally to the classroom curriculum, provide a necessary complement to classroom curricular efforts to enhance students' understanding of citizenship by linking their civic knowledge to practical experience. Community service and service learning activities provide students with a strong sense of accomplishment and the development of civic dispositions that lead them to stay involved. Students are often able to describe not only why they enjoy extracurricular and co-curricular activities, but also why these exercises are important to the development of their own civic knowledge, skills, and dispositions.

Influences of Organizations, Individuals, and Funding

Policies are neither created nor implemented in a vacuum. State departments of education; through their policies, widely influence district practices, but they seem less able to communicate why particular policy goals are worthwhile and should be embraced. District and school administrative bodies more directly affect teacher priorities and actions, but their reach often is limited by state-level requirements and inadequate resources. Interested community organizations possess notable potential to enhance and reinforce beneficial state, district, and school practices, but the scope of their vision often is limited. Teachers have the power to transform lives year after year, but they also must react to the policies and practices that surround them. All of these organizations and individuals must work together to ensure that students receive the K-12 education needed for informed and effective citizenship.

Renewed Commitment to Civic Education

State education policies and school district practices often fail to affirm the importance of civic education directly and continuously throughout grades K-12. As the nation crosses into the next century, the entire American education system must renew its commitment to its civic mission, dedicating itself at every level to ensuring that students are transformed into active and engaged citizens.

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