Education Empowerment

Civic Education is Broken. Teachers Agree.

The headlines are everywhere and well known.

Test scores show that around one-fourth of eighth graders are “proficient” or better in government and civics, with only 15% proficient in U.S. history. One study showed that only one in three Americans could pass the civics portion of the national citizenship test.

Utah is not immune from this rampant historical ignorance and civic apathy. A group calling themselves the Utah Civic Learning Collaborative recently held a listening tour, interviewing more than 400 teachers and administrators, to better understand how civic education is going.

Spoiler alert: not well.

Consider a few of the many grievances shared by educators in their report:

  • It’s hard to fit it all in. We had a lesson on the electoral college. The kids were fascinated that California has so many electors — but why?! You want to dig deep, but there’s just so much to cover.
  • I am intimidated about teaching civics and knowing all the processes and ins and outs. Do I even know how this works?!
  • We teach to the (required) Civics Test, but is that knowledge really going to stick in ways that will help people protect our Republic if need be? We need nuts and bolts knowledge about how to maintain a Republic, how the separation of powers works.
  • I’m good at teaching the structures of government, but I don’t know how to teach 12 year olds how to participate. I’ve not been trained on this.

The report did find that educators “have many fresh ideas for building civic dispositions through academic service learning and want a chance to test them.” Fortunately, there’s now an education sandbox for innovative teachers to use in order to pursue different learning styles and classroom systems.

Hearing teachers admit their own lack of knowledge on civic processes and how to help young people participate in or impact them should be a warning sign about problems with current pedagogical approaches that prioritize memorization of facts over contextual relevance.

Let me put that in plainer English.

American history is typically presented as a series of events — things that happened, people who made them happen, their names, where things took place, etc. These superficial factoids are drilled into kids’ minds and regurgitated for tests. Content is the focus.

Context is not. Most social studies books do not help kids today understand why these historical events should matter to them. The books typically do not relate lessons from history to modern examples where those lessons could be applied.

We all know the quote, “Those who don’t learn from the past are condemned to repeat it” — but today’s textbooks and teachers are often ill-equipped to do anything about it. Kids aren’t being taught to learn from the past. They’re simply being taught about it.

No wonder they disengage. There’s no context. There’s no modern relevance. They don’t see why it matters to them.

(This is precisely the problem we’ve tackled in our new American history Tuttle Twins book.)

The report suggested that teachers “need professional development, models, cheat sheets, and more” to “center civic teaching in the K-12 experience.” But it’s important to question if that will be enough. To be sure, there have been no shortage of past programs and policies pushing for better and broader civic education. It hasn’t worked — whether you look at test scores, civic engagement more broadly, or just the level of depth at which Americans understand basic civic ideas, let alone more significant and substantive political philosophy.

Yes, it’s critical that we teach civic education to young people. Yes, it’s clear that the current methods being used are insufficient. But we also must recognize that fixing the problem may require a radical shift in how it’s being done. After all, according to some, one definition of insanity is to repeat a mistake over and over again while expecting different results.

I look at civic education through my own biased lens of hating it in school and loving it now. What changed? Context and storytelling. Only later in life did I start to see how these historical events and outcomes had any relevance to me today. (NSA spying on all Americans? Suddenly the debate over writs of assistance and the Fourth Amendment becomes super relevant.)

And once I survived the gauntlet of testing and eventually graduated (doing poorly in, and really disliking, anything civics-related), I started reading for leisure. I became enthralled with certain biographies and the stories behind historical events. When history was presented this way, there was far more focus on context than mere content. It was clear why these things mattered.

Context and storytelling are largely absent in a segmented, structured approach to social studies — getting through lots of material in only a few minutes a day, with worksheets, quizzes, and memorized facts galore is a great way to cultivate disinterest among students. But context and storytelling can be found in the classrooms of teachers who have the freedom to set aside the monotonous minutiae and instead enthrall students with stories of intrigue, courage, scandal, and struggle — both past and present.

(This approach also requires that teachers themselves know, appreciate, and have a passion for these stories and the ideas they encourage us to consider. Some do; many do not.)

I believe that civics education is indeed broken, but that the true fix is bottom-up, not top-down. Public schools ultimately are an inadequate remedy to help kids learn the historical dangers of and atrocities committed by the government. Learning about history — with all its warts and bumps — can be cultivated by a passionate teacher who has the flexibility to share stories and context. But truly succeeding at teaching history and its modern relevance is a parental responsibility.

Many argue that to “save our country” we must fix civics education, and they’re not wrong. But these people typically only suggest tweaks to state standards, classroom instruction, and curriculum content. These can be helpful, but (with apologies to Thoreau) there are a thousand hacking at these superficial approaches for every one who tries and strike at the root.

The root of civic disinterest and disengagement is that families are not learning and discussing together historical lessons and their modern relevance. Against this apathy, good teachers can only do so much. If we care about encouraging the rising generation to understand, appreciate, and defend our unalienable rights, then we need an entirely different approach to civic education — one that is family-centric, rooted in story, and highly relevant to our modern day experience.