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The Need for Civic Education

What would a national civics standard look like?

In The Atlantic, Robert Pondiscio, executive director of CitizenshipFirst, suggests that a ground-floor civics standard that must be met by all graduating students from high school is in order—and that the US Citizenship Test is just the place to start. Writing shortly after the release of his white paper for the Pioneer Institute (coauthored with Gilbert T. Sewall and Sandra Stotsky)—“Shortchanging the Future: The Crisis of History and Civics in American Schools”—Pondiscio laments the crisis in civic education and civic knowledge today, but thinks that setting a modest standard like the Citizenship Test would be more helpful than establishing more high-stakes testing or overhauling state standards.

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Citizenship lessons from the vault

We recently came across this speech by the education reformer and Massachusetts state senator Horace Mann (1796–1859) and just had to share. Given in celebration of Independence Day in 1842, Mann discusses the need to think seriously about the perpetuation of our political institutions (a theme Abraham Lincoln had given attention to in his 1838 Lyceum Address) and the role that a strong culture of civic education plays in doing so. We thought it especially appropriate to share now, as it relates to the recent release of our latest case study looking at civic education and school culture in charter schools.

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The memeification of civic engagement

Writing at the Huffington Post, Rachel Tardiff worries that the decline in civic education in public schools has had very real effects on how citizens engage (or don’t engage) their government and advocate for change. Using the recent debate on social networking sites over gay marriage as an example, Tardiff notes that her Facebook feed became “a stream of red, with a huge swath of [her] friends changing their profile pictures” to the red equal sign to show their support for same sex marriage. Unfortunately, she writes, not many of her friends knew what else they could do to show support for their cause: “We’ve grown up in the political reality . . . where civic education courses are a luxury and a sense of civic duty is quaint. When all you feel you can do to further your views is to share a photo on Facebook . . . then it’s a short but hard fall from engagement to impotence.”

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Renewing the social compact

Yesterday, Massachusetts state Senator Richard T. Moore took to the opinion pages to promote a new civic education report in Massachusetts by the Special Commission on Civic Engagement and Learning: “Renewing the Social Compact.” As Moore writes, “if our government, ‘of the people, by the people, and for the people, shall not perish from the earth,’ as Abraham Lincoln proclaimed, we, the people, need to learn about how our government works, understanding our role as citizens in our own government, and how to become civically engaged. As citizens of our town, state, and country, we have more to do than just voting.”

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Civic education and charter schools: current knowledge and future research

The Center on Education Policy at George Washington University has just released a new report that provides a good overview of current research on civic education in charter schools and suggests opportunities for further research. (In regard to this latter point about future research opportunities, as Maria Ferguson, the head of the Center, notes, “The most interesting finding from our analysis is that the research that exists about civic education in any kind of school (charter, traditional public, or private) is limited at best.”)

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School choice week

In celebration of National School Choice Week, we have been highlighting our ongoing case study series “Teaching Citizenship in Charter Schools.” The series explores how top-performing charter schools have incorporated civic learning in their school curriculum and school culture. We have published three case studies so far: Daniel Lautzenheiser and Andrew P. Kelly’s “Charter Schools as Nation Builders: Democracy Prep and Civic Education”; Joanne Jacobs’ “Counting on Character: National Heritage Academies and Civic Education”; and, most recently, David Feith’s “Making Americans: UNO Charter Schools and Civic Education.”

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Civics in the nation’s capital?

According to the Washington Post, a new proposal by the Washington DC State Board of Education would, among other things, eliminate the current requirement that students take a course in American government in order to graduate from high school. Instead, students would be required to take courses in world history (1 unit), United States history (1 unit), and Washington, DC history (0.5) units, and then would have the choice to fill their remaining 1.5 units of social studies with classes such as economics, financial literacy, global studies, or government/civics.

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The NAEP, civic knowledge, and student performance

The Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) has just released two new fact sheets, both looking at the claim that today’s students are not properly prepared for citizenship once they graduate from high school. Only eight states currently test students on American government or civics, and only about a quarter of students nationwide earn a “proficient” score on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) civics exam. This statistic is often cited as proof that more civic education is needed.

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Democracy Prep and civic education

In the first in a series of in-depth case studies by the AEI Program on American Citizenship exploring how top-performing charter schools have incorporated civic learning in their school curriculum and school culture, AEI’s Daniel Lautzenheiser and Andrew P. Kelly take a look at the Democracy Prep Public Schools network in New York City.

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Civics education and Common Core

The Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) recently completed a study of the iCivics computer-based teaching module called Drafting Board. iCivics is an online civic education platform founded by Justice Sandra Day O’Connor that seeks to prepare “young Americans to become knowledgeable, engaged 21st century citizens” by providing educational video games and teaching materials available at its website.

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Sen. Jon Kyl delivers farewell address

After serving for 18 years in the U.S. Senate, Arizona’s Jon Kyl delivered his farewell address to the Senate yesterday afternoon. Kyl first represented Arizona in the House of Representatives from 1987 to 1995 and then was elected to serve in the Senate. In his farewell remarks, Kyl emphasized the importance that civic education plays in shaping civil society and teaching students what it means to be American.

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What is civic engagement anyway?

Peter Levine, director of the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE), raises the question at his blog about what we actually mean when we use the term “civic engagement.” “There is no single answer to this question, which is deeply contested,” he notes.

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States reduce focus on social studies, civics

Over at the Heartlander, Rachel Sheffield, an education research assistant at the Heritage Foundation, interviews the Program on American Citizenship’s Cheryl Miller about the state of civic education in American schools and the promise of charter schools when it comes to civics. Miller notes that “states say civic education is important, but very few test on it. […] That communicates something to teachers, administrators, parents, and students about the importance of this subject.”

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Civic education and voter turnout

The Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) recently raised the interesting question of whether civic education laws affected youth voter turnout in the 2012 election. To explore the answer, CIRCLE “compared youth turnout (for citizens between the ages of 18 and 29) in three groups of states[…]. The first group had strengthened their requirements for high school civics or American government courses or statewide tests in civics. The second group already had some requirements in place and did not change them between 2004 and 2012. The third group weakened their course or testing requirements between 2004 and 2012.”

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The importance of civics education

The American School Board Journal has an article in its current issue about the importance of civics education, even at a time when social studies and civics classes are facing challenges in the era of “college and career” readiness. As Ted McConnell, executive director for the Civic Missions of Schools, reminds, education should be “about preparing students for college, career — and citizenship.”

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Lou Frey talks citizenship

In an interview last week with Florida Today, Lou Frey, a former US Congressman and founder of the Lou Frey Institute of Politics and Government at the University of Central Florida, discussed the importance of civic education efforts in his state. Florida is currently field-testing a new high school civics exam, which it plans to implement statewide next year, and has been leader in promoting civic education for all K-12 students.

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Squishiness watch

Following on the heels of CIRCLE’s recent report showing that most states do not significantly test high school students in social studies or civics, a “draft framework” for common social studies standards is scheduled to be released at the upcoming conference of the National Council of Social Studies on November 17.

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Learning in Mr. Clark’s class


Every year, students in Tom Clarke’s high school history class at Lake Central High School in St. John, Indiana, embark upon a research project to track down the families of the state’s battle casualties and learn more about those who died in service to their country. And for each of the 27 years that the project has been assigned, both students and the families they interact with come away moved by the experience.

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2012 Walter Berns Constitution Day lecture


On September 13, 2012, Michael W. McConnell, Richard & Frances Mallery Professor and director of the Constitutional Law Center at Stanford Law School, delivered the 2012 Walter Berns Constitution Day lecture at AEI with an address entitled “Spending, Public Debt, and Constitutional Design.” If you missed the event, you won’t want to miss reading Professor McConnell’s remarks, which have recently been published by the Program on American Citizenship.

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Broken cities or civic renewal?

Tomorrow, Friday, October 26, the Bradley Center at the Hudson Institute is hosting a panel discussion to explore how problems in government can open the way for an active citizenry. The event, “Broken Cities or Civic Renewal?”, begins at 12:00 PM at the Institute, but can also be livestreamed here.

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