Civics knowledge of eighth graders fell for the first time since the National Assessment of Educational Progress began testing under its current framework in 1998. Commonly known as the nation’s report card, the NAEP also showed a five-point decline in average history scores, amid broader concerns about pandemic-era learning losses.
Perhaps this is not surprising. Adolescents are not alone — a recent World Values Survey reported a cross-generational decline in support of democracy and constitutional norms in America.
This widespread lack of civic knowledge, skills and dispositions — the crucial elements of participatory citizenship — is of deep concern to Americans across the political spectrum. The Founders themselves feared this, knowing that a democratic republic depended on an informed and active public.
To support such a citizenry, civics educators are taking note of the research that highlights effective teaching methods. Among these are simulations or role-playing activities, service learning, open classroom discussions and primary-source analysis.
However, many students never experience these learning activities. Why? Because there are widespread lacks of high-level adoption and student- and school-level accountability for developing or demonstrating civic competencies.
The good news is that there is help on the horizon. Elected officials, administrators, teachers, parents and others are taking action on many fronts, both in school and out, to help remedy the problem.
Nationally, the Bill of Rights Institute and the Charles Koch Foundation have joined the Stand Together Foundation. In another effort, civic education leaders across ideological lines created the Educating for American Democracy framework. Both initiatives signal a shift in strategy from funding partisan battles to supporting coalitions across differences as long as they are aligned with priorities. They are following the call of Frederick Douglass “to unite with anyone to do right” instead of working with only those who share their specific ideology.
In Utah, the state board of education just approved new K–6 social-studies standards that weave civics throughout the curriculum in elementary school classes. Now teachers need support with training and resources on how to best teach so that the knowledge, skills and dispositions stick.
Another encouraging development is a service-learning competition, the MyImpact Challenge (Utah Civic Learning Collaborative Summer Showcase), the result of collaboration among the Utah Civic Learning Collaborative, the national Bill of Rights Institute, Utah Valley University’s Center for Constitutional Studies and Youthlinc, Utah. Picture a science fair for civics projects, and you will have an image of the event. Students are required to write about how their project relates to Founding principles, and they have the possibility of winning more than $5,000 in prizes set aside just for Utah winners, who will go on to compete at the national level.
Additionally, educators, parents and students can attend workshops designed to grow youth impact on a local, state, national and global scale. You can support the MyImpact Challenge contest and Civics Summer Showcase held this year at Utah Valley University’s Grand Ballroom and commons area, both in the Sorenson Center, from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Flag Day, June 14.
Taking part in the MyImpact Challenge can also dispel the misconception that service learning is a tool to indoctrinate students with one ideology or another. In fact, service learning is one of several methods that are highly touted as supporting a deep increase in knowledge and long-lasting civic dispositions.
Among first-year college students, service learning has been shown to de-center students from only thinking of themselves. Service learning can connect academic curriculum to community problem-solving and offer students choices in their focus. The Utah legislature established the HCR15 Working Group to study this and other civic-involvement experiences for students, and the group recommended that skill-building or civic engagement be informed by an abiding knowledge of the Constitution and the foundations of our democratic tradition. Fortunately, that is a requirement that both sides of the aisle can get behind in Utah and what teachers throughout Utah are striving to fulfill.
Faced with a national decline in civic understanding, as highlighted by the NAEP survey, these new developments are promising. Our belief is that students, teachers, parents and concerned citizens across the spectrum, with support from nonpartisan organizations and well-crafted legislation, will turn the tide of polarization and citizen apathy and keep our republic intact.
Eleesha Tucker, Glori H. Smith, and Lisa R. Halverson are Civics Education Fellows at Utah Valley University’s Center for Constitutional Studies.