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Five Questions to Shape Civics Education


Alexandria, VA—With a national and state election season under way, a new report from the National Association of State Boards of Education urges state boards of education to ask five questions to shape the reform of civics education in their states. Arguing that civics education has seen short shrift in recent years, author and past NASBE board chair Jay Barth says state boards can do more to ensure that K-12 students are prepared to be thoughtful, engaged citizens.

Barth offers five questions to guide state boards in this work.

  1. Why is a renewed commitment to civics education necessary? According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, less than a quarter of  8th and 12th graders in the U.S. are proficient in civics, and fewer than one in three schools offers a stand-alone course in civics.
  1. What are the core elements of vibrant civics education? While a thorough understanding of political institutions, modes of participation, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights are essential, it is not enough, Barth writes. Students must engage in civic life in their communities so they can build skills and make connections between theory and practice. In Massachusetts, for example, middle and high school students must complete projects aimed at addressing a challenge in their community.
  1. When should civics be taught? Formal civics education often occurs early in the high school years, with too little foundation in the earlier grades and before they have much opportunity to connect to real-world citizenship activities, like voting. Some states have pressed for earlier introduction of civics learning, with Illinois mandating a middle school course for 2020–21 and Idaho adopting standards to cover K-12 civics learning.
  1. What role should tests play in elevating civics education? The aspects of civics learning that students most need—citizenship skills and dispositions—are the most difficult to assess. Consequently, most tests focus on civics knowledge, which may lead teachers to drill students on facts rather than encourage deep thinking and reflection on how to become a better citizen.
  1. What partnerships are essential to states’ civics education reform? Barth notes that no state has been able to improve civics instruction without the help of foundations, higher education, and advocacy groups, such as Civic Nebraska with its out-of-school learning programs and the McCormick Foundation, which focused on professional development for Illinois teachers.

Barth, who is chief education officer in the City of Little Rock, Arkansas, served on the Arkansas State Board of Education from 2012 to 2019 and is professor emeritus at Hendrix College, where he taught American politics. “During my years as a professor of American politics, I observed a growing chasm between the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ regarding civics knowledge,” Barth writes. “It is time for all those who seek to safeguard liberty and a free and good government to rededicate themselves to educating all students to be thoughtful, engaged citizens.”

NASBE serves as the only membership organization for state boards of education. A nonpartisan, nonprofit organization, NASBE elevates state board members’ voices in national and state policymaking, facilitates the exchange of informed ideas, and supports members in advancing equity and excellence in public education for students of all races, genders, and circumstances.

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