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January 04, 2022 HUMAN RIGHTS

Momentum Grows for Stronger Civic Education Across States

by Shawn Healy

On the heels of the January 6 insurrection, and amid ongoing, toxic political polarization and institutional dysfunction, it is clear that our constitutional democracy is in peril. According to the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania, civic knowledge is alarmingly low, with a bare majority of Americans (56 percent) able to identify the three branches of government and nearly one in ten (20 percent) unable to identify any.

Simultaneously, confidence in our democratic institutions has cratered. Only 5 percent, 13 percent, and 16 percent of Americans have a “great deal” of confidence in Congress, the Supreme Court, and the presidency, respectively. Civic ignorance and distrust fuel political polarization, registering at the highest levels in the modern era.

These deeply troubling trends correlate with the generational marginalization of civic education in K–12 schools. Civic education starts with building the knowledge to understand our systems and should teach the skills and dispositions to engage in the public square and the motivation to do so. Civic education provides the pathway to lifelong civic engagement for our posterity.

Specifically, and as a direct consequence of education policy, civic education has been chronically underfunded, both federally and locally.

Specifically, and as a direct consequence of education policy, civic education has been chronically underfunded, both federally and locally.


However, according to the Council of Chief State School Officers, 44 percent of school districts have reduced time spent on social studies since the advent of No Child Left Behind. This problem is particularly pronounced in the elementary grades, where only 10 percent of class time is devoted to social studies compared to 53 percent for English and 25 percent for math.

The sidelining of social studies coincides with stagnant student proficiency (a stunningly low range of 20–25 percent) across multiple iterations of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) in civics. NAEP results also reveal inequitable access to evidence-based civic learning practices like direct instruction, current event discussions, and simulations of democratic processes.

This neglect of social studies and civics is directly linked to decades-long education policies at the state and federal levels mandating testing of basic literacy (English Language Arts and math) through funding incentives. Specifically, and as a direct consequence of education policy, civic education has been chronically underfunded, both federally and locally. Currently, the federal government invests a mere 5 cents per K–12 student compared to $54 per student for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).

The evidence makes clear that decades of decline in both the quality and the quantity of civic education have contributed significantly to the discord, dysfunction, and widespread disengagement plaguing our nation today.

Here is what we know: Applied early on and comprehensively for every student in the United States, civic education is one key solution to the current anemic state of engagement in our constitutional democracy—and this is widely agreed on by Democrats and Republicans alike. In 2020, pollster Frank Luntz surveyed more than 1,000 Americans and asked what they felt could heal this country’s divides. Among seven solutions, including “less money in politics” and “ranked-choice voting,” civic education was the number one choice by a majority across political leanings.

This backs up what academic reports have shown for decades. According to, civic education, when done well, produces young people who are more likely to vote; work on community issues; become socially responsible; and feel confident speaking publicly and interacting with elected officials.

For example, Illinois adopted a high school civics course requirement in 2015 that embeds evidence-based practices. Through a public-private partnership, Illinois built a statewide system of support that ensured fidelity of implementation among schools and districts, improved dispositions among teachers, and accelerated discernable shifts in pro-civic behaviors among students taking the class. A 2017 student survey conducted by the Center for Information Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) showed that students who completed the new civics course were more likely to serve as leaders in a group or organization, discuss politics or political issues online, volunteer their time, and help to make their city or town a better place to live.

Final Report On the Illinois #CivicsIsBack Civic Education Initiative

Final Report On the Illinois #CivicsIsBack Civic Education Initiative

Center for Information Research on Civic Learning and Engagement

The CivXNow Coalition released its revised State Policy Menu in September 2021. First issued in 2019, the State Policy Menu was updated to better align with the Educating for American Democracy (EAD) Roadmap and embed equity throughout its recommendations.

Among its key provisions are:

  • Universal, equitable access to high-quality civic learning experiences through required civics courses in middle and high school, designated instructional time for civics and social studies in grades K–5, and media literacy opportunities threaded throughout core academic subjects;
  • Civics centered in states’ standards through alignment with the EAD Roadmap;
  • State assessment and accountability measures inclusive of civics, including civics diploma seals for students and K–12 civic learning plans for school districts;
  • Ongoing pre- and in-service professional development opportunities for educators to learn civics content and pedagogies, and a fellowship program to incentivize people of color to join the ranks of civics teachers;
  • Schoolwide and community commitments to civic learning through student representation on local boards and commissions, school disciplinary policies reflective of the principles of constitutional democracy, and school and/or district recognition programs for excellence in civic learning; and
  • Resourcing policy implementation to ensure equity.

States are encouraged to measure their current civics policies alongside the menu and prioritize reforms aligning with its principles. According to our unofficial analysis, 38 states and D.C. require a high school civics course, but only seven for a full year; eight others require civics instruction, but not in the context of a stand-alone course; and seven states have no high school civics requirement.

Turning to middle school, the situation is bleaker with only five states requiring a stand-alone civics course and Massachusetts the sole state requiring a full year of instruction. Twenty-five additional states and D.C. require civics instruction, but 20 do not.

Civics is not officially assessed in 23 states nor in D.C. but is assessed in a variety of manners in the remaining 27 states, with the passage of the U.S. Naturalization Test the most frequent vehicle. On the other hand, civics seals have surfaced in nine states and counting as complementary “carrots” to civics accountability.

Finally, 24 states and D.C. provide students with credit for completing service-learning projects, and five additional states encourage service-learning programs at the district level.

In the spring 2021 legislative sessions, CivXNow tracked 88 bills in 34 states affecting K–12 civic education. The bulk of these bills were designed to strengthen K–12 civic education—many made it across the finish line with bipartisan support. Among the highlights:

  • Oregon and Rhode Island became the 37th and 38th states, respectively, to require at least one semester of civics for high school graduation.
  • Both Indiana and New Jersey passed a requirement for a new middle school civics course.
  • Going even further, Indiana joined Colorado and Nevada in strengthening state civics standards and/or requirements. Indiana’s law creates a permanent state commission of civic education, and our partners in Georgia are seeking to do the same with their State Department of Education.
  • Utah adopted an experiential civics pilot program for the 2021–22 school year.
  • A civics practicum mandate with Republican cosponsors passed unanimously in Florida, despite Governor Ron DeSantis’s ultimate veto.

Alongside this remarkable progress, however, we must acknowledge a late-developing but fast-moving trend: widespread efforts to limit the teaching of so-called “divisive concepts.” Such bills, executive orders, and administrative actions—often identified as “anti-critical race theory” (anti-CRT)—have been introduced in at least 28 states and have become law in 12 states .

Some of these “anti-CRT” efforts directly impact civic education. For example, the Texas legislature banned teaching elements of CRT in the classroom, but along with this included legislative language that also limited current events discussions and community service projects.

At the same time, a dozen other states have pursued policies in the opposite direction, attempting to expand teaching on race, racism, and/or the contributions of racial and ethnic groups to U.S. history. For example, California is among the first states to mandate a statewide ethnic studies curriculum for public school students.

Despite a near consensus of the need for stronger K–12 civic education and significant progress to this end, these state actions on both sides of the red-blue divide demonstrate deep divisions on civics content and pedagogy.

But strengthening civic education is not solely the province of states. As it has with STEM, the federal government has an affirmative role to play in prioritizing and resourcing K–12 civic education through grants to states for teacher training, curriculum development, and student programming, accounting for the unique contexts of states and districts.

Congress must also authorize an expansion and more frequent administration of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) in civics and U.S. history. The latter will allow for state-level disaggregation of results and measurement of student performance at key benchmarks—4th, 8th, and 12th grades.

Incidentally, these priorities are embedded in the bipartisan, bicameral Civics Secures Democracy Act introduced in the 117th Congress that would authorize $1 billion annually for these purposes, and the more modest, bipartisan Teaching Engaged Citizenship Act ($400 million annually) filed in September 2021 in the U.S. House.

These transformational, bipartisan efforts are incredibly significant in this moment of intense polarization.

At a time of great institutional peril, stronger civic education has emerged as an essential long-term solution to their stabilization and preservation. Several states have answered this call, but there remains significant room for growth, and all would benefit from greater federal prioritization of and investment in K–12 civics. We encourage states to consult the CivXNow Policy Menu and pay particular attention to the equity provisions embedded throughout. The fate of our pluralist experiment in constitutional democracy lies in the balance.

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Shawn Healy

Senior Director, Policy and Advocacy, iCivics

Shawn Healy, PhD, is the Senior Director for Policy and Advocacy, and leads iCivics’ state and federal policy and advocacy work through the CivXNow Coalition and oversees civic education campaigns in several key states. He plays an active role in recruiting supporters to fund policy, advocacy, and implementation efforts nationwide to ensure impact.