By: Michael G. Adams
Kentucky Secretary of State
For many Americans, the first image that comes to mind when they hear the term “civics” is not the White House or a voting booth, but rather an animated piece of paper singing on the steps of the Capitol Building. This initial introduction to civic learning – how we engage with each other, our communities, and our democratic system – is often the most direct exposure to civics instruction that many students receive. With growing polarity within our governmental institutions, our willingness and capacity to participate in our civic duties are more important than ever before, further emphasizing the need for robust civics education in schools.
Beyond increased involvement in our political systems, exposing young people to civic learning opportunities provides a myriad of benefits, including improved civic equality, the development of 21st-century skills, improved school climate, and even lower drop-out rates. Yet, despite how important civic learning and engagement and its associated student benefits are, alarming trends have continued to emerge, suggesting a decline across both areas.
According to the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, which conducts an annual survey measuring American civic knowledge, fewer than half of U.S. adults can name all three branches of government, down nine percentage points from last year and the first decline since 2016. Moreover, one out of every four respondents were unable to name any of the protections provided under the First Amendment.
Beyond the skills student acquire, civic learning promotes political participation since understanding and engagement are mutually reinforcing. Though the 2020 presidential election saw a spike in voter turnout nationally at nearly 67 percent, we cannot rely on polarization to drive participation. We must embed our civic understanding and responsibilities into the fabric of our society.
Yet, around the country, Americans are participating less in organizations where they can come together and solve problems, build relationships, and experience community—places like arts and cultural organizations, community centers, and churches. These “Civic Deserts,” where citizens do not have consistent opportunities to engage in civic or political life, are growing more common in the U.S. It is estimated that 60 percent of rural youth and 30 percent of urban and suburban Americans live in a civic desert. Declining participation and involvement with religious organizations and other institutions that have historically nurtured civic engagement further emphasize the need to invest and expand these opportunities through what we know works – education.
Schools are our most effective vehicle for imparting civic habits and values. In fact, education is deeply connected to civic engagement. Compulsory education laws in the U.S. have improved civic participation across many metrics, including voter turnout and group memberships. Despite this evidence, we are not investing adequately in civic education. The very reason public education was established in the mid-1800s was to form citizens and prepare people for the tasks of self-government. Without clear and concise action, we will continue to grapple with growing disconnects from democratic institutions and norms, and likely see widening political divisions that threaten our entire governing system.
With expanded resources, we can reimagine how we teach civics and explore new, innovative ways to assess students on their knowledge. We must ensure students can learn about and engage with civics beyond just classroom learning by providing opportunities to discuss current events and encouraging students to engage in service-learning programs. We can also work to systematize and develop common social studies standards through state-led efforts to incorporate civic learning into state assessments and accountability measures.
I am working towards that goal in Kentucky. Last year, I joined the Executive Committee of the Kentucky Civic Education Coalition (KCEC), a non-partisan coalition. KCEC is launching a pilot program next school year which would provide students who pass a civics curriculum with a gold seal on their diploma when they graduate, recognizing them as exceptional informed citizens.
A critical understanding of our political systems, and our rights and responsibilities as citizens to engage with those systems, must be fostered and strengthened in schools. If we want to build an informed citizenry and robust political institutions, while also ensuring our children engage deeper with their education, we must do more to improve access to comprehensive civic learning and engagement opportunities. As other venues for civic engagement continue to disappear, schools may serve as a beacon guiding the future of our democracy.