When pop star Taylor Swift posted on Instagram last month her support for two Tennessee Democrats in the upcoming midterm elections, the number of voter registrations on Vote.org skyrocketed, outpacing in just 24 hours the total number for all of August. There’s a lot that’s remarkable here, but one aspect stands out: In adding to the civic discourse, she’s inspiring her largely young fan base to get involved, too.
And sparking interest in civics is no small feat. Defined as the study of citizens’ rights and duties and government workings, civics education has been languishing for years. Studies show that civic knowledge and public engagement is at an all-time low. For example, the Annenberg Public Policy Center found in a 2016 survey that only 26 percent of Americans can name all three branches of government. As Jonathan R. Cole wrote in a Nov. 8, 2016, article for The Atlantic, “It is telling, for example, that in 2009, 89 percent of those who took a test on civic knowledge expressed confidence they could pass it; in fact, 83 percent would have failed.”
Apathy, meanwhile, is widespread. The U.S. has among the lowest voter turnouts among developed nations. Despite some fluctuations, only about half of the country’s voting age population tends to cast a ballot in a presidential race.
The lack of knowledge about how our system of government works starts young. More than 80 percent of college seniors at 55 top-ranked schools would have earned a D or F on historical knowledge, according to a 2015 study published by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni. The survey found that about half of respondents couldn’t state the length of the terms for Senate and House members.
And according to a Feb. 21, 2018, report on “The State of Civics Education” by the Center for American Progress (CAP), while the 2016 presidential election sparked a renewed interest in politics among young people, only 23 percent of eighth-graders performed at or above the proficient level on the National Assessment of Educational Progress civics exam — and achievement levels have virtually stagnated since 1998.
One reason for the malaise may be that an increased focus on math and reading in elementary, middle and high schools has pushed out other subjects, such as civics, according to CAP. But for schools near the nation’s capital, civics education can be tough to miss.
“We’re really fortunate to teach social studies and do civic education in Washington, D.C., because there’s such a wealth of resources all around that the city can become the classroom,” said Scott Abbott, director of social studies for DC Public Schools (DCPS). “What we try to do is set up our curriculum and professional development with teachers so that the instruction that they’re doing with students really leverages the different opportunities and resources that are locally available.”
Sometimes that’s a field trip to a Smithsonian Institution museum. Other times, it’s seeing the musical “Hamilton” at the Kennedy Center, which is what about 1,200 DCPS 11th-graders did in September. It was part of the Gilder Lehrman Institute’s Hamilton Education Program, which invites Title I-eligible schools — those with high numbers of students from low-income families — to make Alexander Hamilton and the Founding Era part of classroom studies and to see the show.
Additionally, as part of a unit on how a bill becomes law, high schoolers choose an issue that is important to them and craft legislation about it. Some students at Dunbar High School chose gun control, and before the March For Our Lives gun control demonstration earlier this year, they met with D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser to discuss their bill.
Two years ago, DCPS partnered with the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum on visits for 10th-graders studying World War II. About 1,500 students have participated each year.
By engaging in such project-based learning, Abbott said, students learn the conceptual content. In other words, going beyond textbooks helps makes civics stick.
“If they’re going to be prepared to be members of society, it’s not something that they could just learn, memorize, take the test and move on,” Abbott said. “We want them to actually know things deeply enough that they’re going to be active and engaged citizens.”
DCPS does adhere to state standards laid out by grade level. For instance, it works to meet standards such as the birth, growth and decline of civilizations; the effects of interactions between humans and the environment; and the influence of economic, political, religious and cultural beliefs as human societies move beyond regional, national or geographic boundaries. The District also aligns instruction with the “Six Proven Practices for Effective Civic Learning” guidebook, including connecting past and current events, performing community service linked to curriculum and encouraging simulations of government or democratic procedures.
The guidebook emphasizes that real-world lessons, not just static lectures and PowerPoint presentations, are key to helping students grasp how civics shapes their everyday lives. For example, learning not only about how government is structured, but also why it is structured the way it is — and the challenges and complexities inherent within that system — gives students a better understanding of the political polarization dividing the nation.
“As academic pressures in schools intensify, many civics courses have morphed into more cursory, fly-by kinds of course requirements that students merely check off of a to-do list. The disadvantage for students in courses like these is that they often do not provide the kinds of hands-on learning experiences that have a lasting impact,” according to the guidebook, written by Lisa Guilfoile, Brady Delander and Carol Kreck.
Abbott agrees that teaching young people the real-world relevance of civics is essential.
“Students have to learn the ideas that underpin our Constitution and our government, but I think a lot of what we’re trying to do with our approach here is bridge it to the more practical application of civics as well,” Abbott said.
The Whittle School & Studios, a new private school network that is set to open a campus in Washington, D.C., and Shenzhen, China, in fall 2019, is planning to incorporate civics into its core academic program, which will be organized around interdisciplinary, project-based classes four days a week and an Expeditionary Day (or “X-Day”) once a week when students go beyond the classroom and directly into the local community.
Whittle, too, stresses the importance of hands-on learning and will take advantage of its location in the nation’s capital to expose students to civics firsthand.
“Washington, D.C. is a rich crucible for not only civics education but deep learning across the curriculum. From its rich history as one of America’s leading African American metropolises, to its resources as our nation’s capitol, D.C. is uniquely positioned to provide opportunities for experiential learning,” Andrew Meyers, co-chair of Whittle’s education design team and global head of experiential learning at the school, told us via email.
“Already, for our Summer Adventure Program for early applicants, we have traveled down the Anacostia River to learn about Native American settlements and early industrialization; tested water quality and explored the diversity of local ecosystems at Kenilworth Gardens; heard student presentations on the National Mall; explored how communities wrestle with urban renewal with historians at the Anacostia Smithsonian; and created street art dedicated to ‘resilience’ with a renowned street artist in the Shaw neighborhood,” he said.
Whittle’s mission is to give students a modern, global education. Learning about their local neighborhoods is integral to that international focus, Meyers said.
“We are dedicated to teaching our students global awareness through exploring local roots. So the experience of the students — in their classroom, family, neighborhood and city — becomes an opportunity to learn how to be respectful of different identities and cultures, and thoughtful members of their community,” he explained. “When students understand how to navigate their city, they can apply what they learn to addressing global challenges. So, learning civics in a local and national context becomes the platform for navigating other cultures globally.”
For example, elementary school students will begin with urban skill-building, which includes learning how to map a city through architecture tours, transportation studies and interviews with residents. Middle schoolers will expand upon these skills by conducting archival research and environmental analysis, writing policy memos and participating in urban projects such as exploring city physics through bridge design or analyzing car velocity.
“City fieldwork and deep research are integral elements of our curriculum,” Meyers said. “No matter how engaging a teacher or lesson plan may be, learning will always be more meaningful … when it is experienced beyond the classroom.”
Episcopal High School in Alexandria, Va., a private boarding school, also takes advantage of its location in the form of its Washington Program. For 21 Wednesdays each school year, students go off campus to explore civics and D.C. through four concentration areas: cultural awareness, entrepreneurship, public policy and sustainability. For instance, they have worked and studied at the National Museum of the American Indian; learned about economic policy decisions from Treasury Department employees; completed externships with the State Department and White House Office of the Staff Secretary; and researched environmental concerns with the Environmental Protection Agency.
“We have this weekly connection to our curriculum for all of our students that allows our faculty to construct experiential learning opportunities that connect directly to what they’re working on in the classroom,” said Jeremy Goldstein, director of experiential learning at Episcopal, Sen. John McCain’s alma mater. “In theory, a student can come here for four years and have 100 academic experiential education opportunities through our program.”
He puts an emphasis on making civics part of the school’s overall curriculum, rather than a standalone course.
“Our students — and maybe more than other students nationwide — have their finger on the pulse of Washington and that public policy, service, leadership piece than most students do,” said Goldstein. “It’s because we’re intentional about weaving it into our program and geographically. We’re right here.”
Fork Union Military Academy, situated about two and a half hours southwest of D.C., takes another approach. Since 1950, the private boarding school for boys has used the One Subject Plan in which students focus exclusively on one subject for about seven weeks. The benefit to this is that students aren’t distracted by juggling multiple classes at one time.
“The con to that would be that it’s not perpetual study,” said Mike Goad, a U.S. history and government instructor at the academy. “If you’re not continuously studying something like civics, you get rusty.”
His approach to civics is laying a solid foundation in the classroom and building on it through experiences such as visiting the Appomattox Court House, where the 1865 surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia signaled the end of America’s Civil War — a trip Hurricane Florence interrupted this year.
“Education in general doesn’t view civic education as something that needs to be foundational and built upon like math,” Goad said. “Civics education to me is no different than math education. If I don’t know how to divide, I can’t look at a fraction and see that it’s a portion of the whole number. If I don’t know Algebra I, I can’t do Algebra II. If I don’t know that the majority of both the House and the Senate need to pass a bill for it to go to the president and that the president has a veto option, I can’t talk about conference committees and joint committees.”
Another factor in today’s lack of civic engagement is that people take the government setup for granted, he said. “Today, it’s here. We study how we got it, but everybody that’s alive today is so used to it that we don’t really appreciate it as much,” Goad said.
Proximity to the nation’s capital may indeed play a role in how civically engaged young people are. Voter participation in Maryland and Virginia among adults ages 18 to 24 trends higher than that of other states, according to the Center for American Progress report. In Maryland, the voter participation rate for that age group is 48 percent, while Virginia has the highest in the country at 54.6 percent, followed by Kentucky at 51.1 percent and Nebraska at 50.1 percent.
D.C., Maryland and Virginia are three of only 10 states that require a yearlong course in U.S. government or civics, although none requires a civics exam for graduation, according to CAP. Thirty-one states only require a half-year of civics or U.S. government education, and 10 states have no civics requirement.
Without that solid foundation of understanding why government works the way it does, many experts warn that young people will lack the basic knowledge to shape that government in the future. As Founding Father James Madison wrote in an 1822 letter: “Knowledge will forever govern ignorance.”
And given how much government policies affect our daily lives, from the taxes we pay to the wars we fight, political illiteracy can be just as limiting to future success as not being able to read and write.
As Abbott put it: “If you’re going to be able to be successful as an adult member of society in the United States, you have to be prepared as a citizen and prepared to be civically engaged.”
About the Author
Stephanie Kanowitz is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.