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Civic Education Professional Development: The Lay of the Land

Wednesday, April 1st, 2015

Civic Education Professional Development: The Lay of the Land

By Rebecca Burgess
(March 31, 2015)

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This  For more information about AEI’s Program on American Citizenship, visit www.citizenship-aei.org.

Key Points:

  • Because of the breadth of topics in civics, professional development (PD) programs are themselves diverse. With various degrees of emphasis placed on civic knowledge, skills, and engagement, programs are often unlikely to define what specific understanding of citizenship they seek to help teachers promote in the classroom.
  • While PD programs retain fairly traditional elements of civic education, skills, and dispositions as their focus, how those coalesce into a broader sense of attachment to the American polity—a central goal of civic education in the past—remains unclear.
  • With the decline in emphasis given to civics by the educational reform movement, resources for PD programs and teacher participation in those programs have declined significantly, affecting their ability to carry out long-term assessments of the effectiveness of program offerings.

Executive Summary

Democracy requires well-informed citizens, with the habits and mind-set required to maintain a free and self-governing society. Teachers, in turn, are key to establishing those habits of heart and mind on which democracies rely. As such, teachers benefit from exposure to professional development (PD) opportunities that refresh and augment their knowledge and classroom skills in the area of civics.

But education officials and policymakers face a host of competing priorities, and support for professional development in civics has has been limited. One crucial consequence is the lack of research regarding current civics PD programs. Accordingly, the AEI Program on American Citizenship set out to survey the providers of civics PD, delving into their purposes, methods, and views to create a first-ever overview of PD in civics.

This study revolves around an essential question: what is the nature and range of PD for secondary civics teachers in the United States? Our aim is to reveal a portrait of current practice through a combination of interviewing and surveying current civics PD providers and through reviewing the current literature on high-quality PD.  Here is what we learned.

Mission and Purpose

  • Civic knowledge, skills, and engagement make up the key components that civics PD programs identify as their primary “deliverables.” However, beyond promoting these elements of civic education in general, PD organizations are, with some exceptions, not likely to define what specific understanding of citizenship and civic education they seek to promote through their programs.
  • Although PD programs emphasize as their ultimate goal improving students’ knowledge of history and the foundations of democratic government, PD organizations appear to shy away from increasing a participating teacher’s own understanding or ability to teach specific facts, dates, and major events in America’s constitutional heritage.
  • PD programs do retain fairly traditional elements of civic education as the core of the civic knowledge they promote, such as the meaning of representative democracy and civil society. They also frequently touch on the subject of the market economy, and they give high value to expanding knowledge about human rights and the role of the United States in the world.
  • The primary civic skills that PD programs address with teachers are those related to organized deliberation. PD explores how to improve students’ ability to work effectively with others through consensus building, but also helps them develop the skills required to defend their own positions.
  • PD organizations emphasize civic dispositions that balance the exercise of individual rights with the responsibilities of citizenship. However, what remains unaddressed is how or whether the civic dispositions encouraged coalesce into a broader sense of attachment to the American polity.

Organizational Structure, Funding, and Evaluation

  • PD organizational structure can vary widely, with no one organizational template for civics PD organizations.
  • PD programs are typically directed by individuals who have considerable professional and educational experience in the field.
  • The cost—in time and money—of participating in a PD program can affect who applies to, and who eventually shows up for, PD.
  • Federal and state funding have shifted away from civics as the nation’s education focus in recent years has turned toward science, technology, engineering, and mathematics subjects.
  • PD organizations are also restricted in their ability to maintain a long-term contact with their program participants, which affects their ability to carry out long-term assessments or evaluations of their program offerings.
  • Although existing PD organizations already do much with little, providing additional resources to assess effectiveness of programs in the classroom would be an important assist to the field of civic education.


Americans’ trust in government has plummeted to a near-historic low. Numerous polls have dramatized how deep this discontent runs. But this seemingly stark political landscape has helped renew interest in the role that long-neglected notions of civics and civic education can play in the nation’s short- and long-term health. After 40-plus years of having to wander in the education agenda desert, in 2014, civics began to be welcomed back into classrooms from Massachusetts to Florida to California.

A growing number of state legislatures are now considering bills that would require students to pass the US citizenship exam as a requirement for graduation. As of this writing, Arizona and North Dakota have been the first to pass such legislation. In summer 2014, the Massachusetts Board of Higher Education adopted a policy (the first in the nation) to make civics a part of every undergraduate degree at state community colleges and public four-year universities. These efforts run parallel to research and academic scholarship spanning more than a decade’s worth of time that have sought to reinvigorate the dialogue around civic education. But to date, district officials and state policymakers seem largely uninterested in the teacher element of the civic education formula—that is, in making sure teachers are properly prepared to carry out civic education responsibilities in the classroom. This is especially true when it comes to ongoing professional support or the professional development (PD) options available to them.

There has been a demonstrated lack of research in this area, even while research has been conducted on teacher effectiveness and PD in the fields of science and mathematics. And while high performance of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) students is widely acknowledged to be linked to high-quality teachers, the corollary truth for the field of civic education has not spurred any similar assessment by the education or policymaking establishment. Given the diminished interest in civic education over the past several decades, and the emphasis placed by advocates of school reform on science, math, and literacy, this is not surprising. But it ill fits with the widely accepted view that democracies depend on an educated citizenry and that the most important institution for inculcating the knowledge and principles to sustain democracy has been America’s school system.

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To aid those in the classroom responsible for this high-stakes task, civic education teachers need the ongoing support of civics PD. In 2010, the AEI Program on American Citizenship conducted a study in conjunction with noted pollsters and analysts Steve Farkas and Ann Duffett to understand the views, thoughts, and frontline observations of our nation’s high school history and social studies teachers. Among many stark findings that came to light by means of the study, High Schools, Civics, and Citizenship: What Social Studies Teachers Think and Do, was the following: teachers “appear uncertain about what the precise content of a proper civic education should be.”

In response to this finding, as well as to recommendations made in earlier studies such as The Civic Mission of Schools, the Program on American Citizenship began a multipronged study of currently available civics PD programs and opportunities. Understanding that an analysis of current practice needed to be conducted to know what is being done and what needs to be done to improve PD, in 2011 we first conducted a survey of almost 2,000 alumni of existing PD providers. Our aim was to learn about who participates in PD activities for civic education, why they participate, and what impact they believe their PD experiences have had on their teaching. The focus, in other words, was on the teacher-as-student experience in PD training.

Our second effort flows from this first survey. Whereas the former concentrated on the participant experience, the succeeding effort, represented in the following pages, concentrates on the providers of civics PD themselves, delving more deeply into their purposes, methods, and views to create a first-ever comprehensive overview of PD in civics.

This current survey accordingly asks what the nature and range of PD is for secondary civics teachers in the United States. Research around this question will help define what existing PD in civic education looks like and how that compares with current definitions of high-quality, effective PD. Our aim is to reveal a portrait of current practice through a combination of interviewing and surveying current civics PD providers and through reviewing the current literature on high-quality PD.

The resulting report of civics PD can be used as a springboard for further research—research that seeks to identify which specific types of PD in civics affect teacher practice, and further out, research that examines the impact of civics PD on student achievement. For teachers, PD organizations, and education policymakers, this information is simply lacking—even though it is of vital importance to the country’s long-term civic health.

Read the full report.