August 29, 2018

3 Ways to Improve Civics Education

Youth are the leaders of the future. How can we teach them that their voices matter?

An effective civics education teaches students about their rights and responsibilities as citizens, as well as how government works. But in the United States, not all students learn these fundamentals. According to a 2018 study by the Center for American Progress, only nine states and the District of Columbia require high school students to take a full-year course on civics or the U.S. government. Ten states do not require any civics education at all.

This may be changing. Concerns such as low voter turnout, misinformation spread by social media, and the resurgence of mass protests have lawmakers and educators increasingly interested in bringing civics education back into schools, says EDC’s Wendy Rivenburgh.

“I think we’re in a cultural moment for civics education,” she says.

Rivenburgh, who recently presented “Media Literacy and Discerning Fact from Fiction” to the Massachusetts Civics Education Institute, is helping state educators address new curriculum standards related to the state’s pending civics education law. Here, she discusses three features that a civics program should have.

1. It has to be student centered and inquiry based.

Civic engagement stems directly from students’ own experiences and ideas. But engagement doesn’t just happen—educators have to cultivate students’ interest in community involvement. Rivenburgh recommends that teachers start by asking questions such as, What happens in your community that is fair or unfair? To whom does it happen? Why is this issue important to you?

“A good civics lesson should be student driven,” says Rivenburgh. “This means that it should start with what students know and what they see in their communities, and then ask them to figure out what they can do about a specific issue.”

These personal reflections help students see that their voices and experiences matter. They also allow young people to formulate their own ideas about the type of community that they want to live in—a critical aspect of civic engagement.

2. It has to be interdisciplinary.

Because civics education promotes interdisciplinary, contextual learning, it should be integrated across the curriculum, says Rivenburgh. For example, history class offers opportunities to discuss how the U.S. government works and how institutions have changed over time. Mathematics class offers chances to explore voting rates among different segments of the population—and the potential impact on policy when certain populations are disenfranchised. And don’t forget media literacy, which helps students make sense of the videos, stories, and news clips with which they are continually bombarded.

“I’ve heard from parents, teachers, and policymakers who are worried about students’ ability to evaluate information that they come across online,” she says. “Teaching students how to differentiate a fact from an opinion, how to substantiate a claim they may see on social media, and how to find trusted sources of news are all critical skills now.”

Expanding civic education across all disciplines also sends the message that civics itself is integral to life in a democratic society—that no matter what your role or your job, you have opportunities to participate, and to make the system work better for more people.

“Taking an active role in society is vital,” says Rivenburgh. “We have to teach that from a young age.”

3. It has to be empowering.

The point of a good civics education is to ‘do civics,’ says Rivenburgh. A vibrant civics education program should support students in learning to speak up and take action to make a difference.

How can teachers help students get involved? She offers the following ideas:

  • Partner with civic and community organizations on volunteer efforts
  • Engage in collaborative action research projects, where students investigate and address an issue relevant to their communities, enabling them to be problem-solvers and advocates
  • Hold high school voter challenges, in which schools compete to see who can register the most newly eligible voters

The most important takeaway from a civics program is that every student feels empowered to contribute to their community—and to their country.

“Not every young person feels like their voice matters,” says Rivenburgh. “We should instill the belief that civic participation is both their right and their duty. And then we should listen and accept their help on issues of consequence in our society.”