New Report Spotlights Civic Education Crisis in America, Offers Vision for Reform

In recent years, concern for the health of American democracy has mounted—and with good reason. Although the costs of polarization and misinformation are hard to quantify, there is little question that they have coarsened and warped our public conversations, and the risks they pose to our system of government are too large for comfort.

At the center of the threats to American democracy you will find “the tattered condition of our civics and U.S. history education” in America, according to a new report we released at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, entitled, “The State of State Standards for Civics and U.S. History in 2021.”

Of course, better K−12 education in civics and U.S. history won’t solve these problems by itself, yet it’s difficult to envision much long-term progress without doing better on this front. After all, as of 2018, not quite a quarter of eighth graders were proficient in civics, according to the National Assessment for Education Progress, and even fewer—a meager 15%— were proficient in U.S. history.

Hence the growing interest in making this the moment when our public schools rekindle the teaching and learning of civics and U.S. history. But where to start?

Because our federal system ensures that states bear primary responsibility for education, states’ academic standards for civics and U.S. history are ground zero for any discussion of where we could and should be doing better. Accordingly, our report evaluates the quality of states’ K–12 civics and U.S. history standards in 2021 based on their content, rigor, clarity and organization.

We tackled the two subjects simultaneously because, in our view, they cannot really be disentangled. After all, our government has a history, and much of what we call U.S. history concerns our efforts to reform it.

In addition to Fordham leaders such as Chester Finn Jr. and Amber Northern, our bipartisan review team therefore included a mix of veteran educators and subject-matter experts in both disciplines who were led by Jeremy Stern, Ph.D. We also recruited a formidable panel of external advisors including Louise Dubé, executive director of iCivics; Jeffrey Rosen, president and CEO of the National Constitution Center; and Peter Gibbon, Ph.D.

Ultimately, our reviewers awarded “exemplary” ratings to five politically and geographically diverse jurisdictions – Alabama, California, Massachusetts, Tennessee and the District of Columbia – that we hope other states will emulate.

In contrast, 20 states have “inadequate” standards that require a complete rewrite, and another 15 states have “mediocre” standards that need significant revisions.

In general, we recommend that states:

  • Incorporate substantive civics content into every elementary and middle school grade and ensure that students make at least one full pass through U.S. history before high school.
  • Specifically require that high school students take at least one year of U.S. history and at least one semester of civics to graduate.
  • Provide more specific and detailed guidance in both subjects that spells out what every student should know about this country’s democratic institutions and history.
  • Put more emphasis on writing and arguing from evidence, as well as the connections between core civics and U.S. history content and current issues and events.
  • Cultivate essential civic dispositions such as respect for other persons and opinions, an inclination to participate and serve and a commitment to American institutions and ideals.

In addition to more detailed explanations of those points, the final report includes comprehensive profiles of every state’s civics and U.S. history standards, as well as customized recommendations for improving them. After all, if we want to get beyond the handwringing and feel-good bromides that have characterized the last half century of civic inaction, we must put forward a concrete vision and be specific about what states, districts, schools and teachers should do differently.

Still, standards and course requirements are just a starting point. To get real traction, they must be joined by high-quality instructional materials and teaching, sufficient time and effort and some form of results-based accountability. These are areas where thoughtful philanthropy could make a real difference in the next few years. So, if you share (or mostly share) the vision for civic education that I’ve laid out in this column, I encourage you to read the full report, share it widely and then ask yourself the question that is the lodestar of good philanthropy and engaged citizenship: What comes next?

David Griffith is a senior research and policy associate at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.