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May 06, 2024 ABA Task Force for American Democracy

The State of Civics Education in the General Populace

Robert A. Kelly


It has long been recognized that having voters with a general knowledge and understanding of how our political system works, commonly referred to as civics, enhances and improves the functioning of our system. As highlighted in a recent edition of Human Rights magazine (a publication of the ABA’s Civil Rights and Social Justice section) examining the state of civics education in the country, “civic[s] 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.”

This Working Paper will, among other things, provide information regarding the current state of civics education in the general U.S. population, examine some of the causes of the current state, discuss what some states are doing to address the situation and make recommendations for steps to improve the overall civics knowledge among the populace.

Traditionally, civics knowledge has been provided through instruction in schools, often beginning in elementary school and continuing through high school and even college. However, for a variety of reasons, civics knowledge in the general populace is uneven at best and has declined in recent decades. For example, in a 2022 survey conducted by the Annenberg Public Policy Center, Less than half of U.S. adults (47%) could name all three branches of government, down from 56% in 2021 and the first decline on this question since 2016. This diminishing civics knowledge has also coincided with declining public engagement and trust in our political system. According to a Gallup survey conducted in 2021, only five percent, 13 percent, and 16 percent of Americans have a “great deal” of confidence in Congress, the Supreme Court, and the presidency, respectively.

In the several decades following the country’s founding, most Americans did not attend formalized schooling. However, the mid-19th century saw the introduction of universal, state-funded education, which often taught a core curriculum that included civics education. This early civics education was usually typified by the introduction, recitation, and memorization of foundational documents (such as the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution) and political speeches.

Over the latter half of the 19th century and throughout the 20th century, civics education remained a constant part of the curriculum in schools, albeit with changing approaches due to prevailing issues and public sentiment (e.g., fostering an “Americanized” populace during the immigration waves of the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century and stressing the American democratic system as a bulwark against the spread of Communism during the Cold War era).

Following the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001, a heightened emphasis on basic reading and math skills and an increase in the amount of instruction time devoted to such subjects and to preparing for standardized testing resulted in a corresponding decrease in time allocated to civics and history learning. This reallocation continued in subsequent years as schools placed greater emphasis on teaching STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) subjects, again often at the expense of civics and history. This decreased focus on civics education has unsurprisingly resulted in reduced civics knowledge amongst young people. As described by Shawn Healy, Senior Director, Policy and Advocacy of iCivics (a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting civics education that was originally founded by former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor), the decline in civics education “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.”

This deemphasis of civics education is also reflected in the various states’ existing requirements with respect to civics education. Currently, 31 states require a one-semester high school civics course and only six require a full-year course. The remaining states either require some civics instruction but not as a separate class or have no high school civics requirement. At the middle-school level, only five states require a dedicated civics course, with an additional 25 states requiring some form of civics instruction; no civics instruction is mandated in middle school in 20 states. Civics is not officially assessed in 23 states. Only 24 states allow school credit to be awarded for completing service-learning projects.

Problem Statement

What can be done to improve the state of civics education among the general populace?

Possible Solutions

While there is no single solution or approach that will solve the issues around anemic civics knowledge among the general populace, there are several possible actions that can be taken at the federal and state levels to address this issue:

Possible Actions at Federal Level

  • Civics Secures Democracy Act: At the Federal level, Congress should adopt the Civics Secures Democracy Act, which was introduced in a bipartisan fashion in 2022 and would authorize $1 billion annually for, among other things, grants to states and school districts to support civics and history education and an expansion and more frequent administration of civics and US history assessments of middle school and high school students. These funds would help correct the chronic underinvestment in civics education that has occurred over the last 20 years.
  • PREP in Civics and Government Act: Congress should also adopt the Promoting Programming, Research, Education and Preservation (PREP) in Civics and Government Act. This bipartisan legislation was introduced in 2023 and would add the study of civics and government to the scope of the National Endowment for the Humanities, providing an additional source of funding and resources for civics education.

Possible Actions at State Level

  • Increased Instruction Requirements: States should be encouraged to adopt dedicated civics instruction requirements at both the high school and middle school levels. Given the current state of civics knowledge in the general populace, students should receive civics instruction in more than just a single high school class in order to increase the likelihood that they will retain the knowledge as they reach voting age.
  • Civics Literacy Assessments: Encourage states to adopt civics literacy assessments as part of graduation standards. Currently, most states that have this requirement use the U.S. Citizenship Test to assess civics knowledge.
  • Course Credit: More states should provide students with opportunities to receive course credit for civics-related projects and other experiential learning.
  • New Approaches: Encourage the adoption of innovative approaches to civics learning. A number of states have implemented new approaches, including:
    • Colorado: The state has implemented the Judicially Speaking program as part of its statewide social studies curriculum. This program, which was started by three local judges, uses interactive exercises and firsthand experience to teach students about how judges think through civics as they make decisions.
    • Idaho: Some civics component is integrated into every social studies class beginning in kindergarten and continuing through 12th grade. Idaho mandates that students take the U.S. Citizenship Test per Idaho Code Section 33-1602.7. Students can take the test any time after enrolling in Grade 7 and can retake it until passing. Districts have the autonomy to select questions from the Citizenship Test and determining formatting and passing scores. Testing is permitted from grades 7-12.
    • Utah: In 2022, Utah adopted a civics pilot program that authorizes grants to local education agencies that provide innovative approaches to civics learning, such as academic service learning, mock trials and simulations of government processes.
    • Delaware: High school students are permitted one excused absence for participating in civics-related events such as visiting a place of political or cultural significance or participating in a rally or march for an issue about which they are interested.
    • Others: There are a number of long-established nonprofit organizations, such as iCivics and Generation Citizen, that have prepared materials such as legislative templates and teaching materials and would be available to join in public-private partnerships to implement innovative approaches to civics learning. A number of states have also participated in the Civics Learning Week program, which involves a mix of live and virtual events that address a wide range of national and local issues around civics learning.
  • Roadmap to Educating for American Democracy: A group of over 300 experts across the political spectrum have come together to recommend new guidelines for civics education that should be considered by states. They have also produced a companion set of pedagogical materials for teachers and other educators. Some conservative commentators have criticized the Roadmap project for supposedly promoting divisive concepts such as “critical race theory,” although this criticism is not supported by the actual contents of the Roadmap.

References and Sources for Further Reading

  • Annenberg Public Policy Center, University of Pennsylvania, “Many Don’t Know Key Facts About U.S., Constitution, Annenberg Civics Study Finds” (posted on on Sept. 14, 2023).
  • Bailey, L., “Six States with Exemplary Civics Education Programs,” Population Education, PopEd Blog (2021).
  • Brenan, M., “Americans’ Confidence in Major U.S. Institutions Dips” (posted on on July 14, 2021).
  • Dubé, L. and Vinnakota, R., “Preparing the next generation of citizens requires bringing back civics” (posted on on January 25, 2023).
  • Educating for American Democracy Initiative, “Educating for American Democracy—Excellence in History and Civics for All Learners” (2021).
  • Healy, S., “Momentum Grows for Stronger Civic Education Across States,” from Human Rights, Vol. 47, No. 2: The State of Civic Education in America, American Bar Association, Civil Rights and Social Justice Section (2022).
  • Healy, S. “How States Can Strengthen K-12 Civics Education” (posted on on July 22, 2022).
  • Shapiro, S. and Brown, Catherine, “A Look at Civics Education in the United States,” American Educator (Summer 2018).
  • Smith, C., “Civic Education is Having a Moment. This Is What That Means.” (posted on on March 3, 2023).
  • Winthrop, R., “The need for civic education in 21st-century schools,” Brookings Policy 2020 (posted on on June 4, 2020).
  • The websites for iCivics ( and CivXNow ( contain a vast collection of civics-related articles, teaching guides and other materials.

This document has been submitted to the Task Force for American Democracy for consideration and has been posted and/or circulated for information purposes only. The views expressed herein represent the opinions of the author(s) and not those of the Task Force or the ABA. They have not been reviewed or approved by the House of Delegates or the Board of Governors of the American Bar Association and, accordingly, should not be construed as representing the position of the Association or any of its entities. This publication is freely available to download, copy and distribute provided there is attribution to the ABA Task Force for American Democracy, and provided this notice is reproduced on all copies.

Robert A. Kelly


Robert A. Kelly served as the General Counsel of Quibi, a start-up online streaming platform from 2018 until 2022. Mr. Kelly joined Quibi as its second employee and, along with its founders, Jeffrey Katzenberg and Meg Whitman, completed two pre-launch capital rounds that raised over $1.75 billion. As General Counsel, he built a team of lawyers that was responsible for all legal matters involving the Company, including intellectual property, privacy, labor and employment, regulatory compliance and litigation. From 2006 until 2016, Mr. Kelly served as the Deputy General Counsel of DreamWorks Animation (now a subsidiary of Comcast NBCUniversal), where he was responsible for securities matters, mergers and acquisitions, corporate governance and general corporate matters. From 1996 until 2005, Mr. Kelly was the Deputy General Counsel of WellPoint Health Networks Inc. (now a subsidiary of Anthem/Elevance Health) and was responsible for, among other things, mergers and acquisitions and securities matters. Previously, from 1990 until 1996, he was a corporate associate with Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, LLP. He received a B.A. in Economics, with Department Honors and Distinction, from Stanford University and a J.D. from Yale Law School.