Civics should be taught in every grade, not just high school

December 10, 2020

“Education in something like civics needs to be built like a layer cake, teaching students something in each grade, so that by the time they get to the required high school course, they have some background and understanding,” said David Davenport, the author of “Commonsense Solutions to our Civics Crisis,” a recent Hatch Foundation report. “Waiting until a single course in high school to teach civics is too little, too late.”

The recent report touches on some recommendations for improving civics education with an emphasis on funding at the state and federal level as well as a testing regime that heightens the importance and awareness of the subject area.

To read the full report you can look here. You can find the full interview between Sutherland Institute’s education policy fellow Christine Cooke and Dave Davenport below. 

Christine Cooke, Sutherland Institute’s education policy fellow: Your recent Hatch Foundation report titled “Commonsense Solutions to our Civics Crisis” recommends increasing civics education testing as a way to elevate the importance of the topic, and testing does raise the profile of a subject. Yet, we also hear more complaints about too much testing in school and teachers leaving the profession as they get overregulated. How can states balance the proposed benefits of testing with the need to avoid the risk of over-testing? 

Dave Davenport: I am not a huge fan of the culture of testing that exists in many schools, constantly preparing for and taking standardized tests. Having said that, I think there are two kinds of civics tests that should be given. First the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), often called “The Nation’s Report Card,” tests subjects like math and reading regularly, and distributes scores for 4th, 8th and 12th graders. The civics test is given every four years in 8th grade only. That gives a national message that civics is not important and we need to increase that testing. Second, research shows that a civics test in high school, perhaps even as a graduation requirement, improves learning. So I’m not proposing a major increase in testing, but those two enhancements should help a good deal.

Cooke: Education policy is a state issue. Yet, the federal government often pushes initiatives from the federal level as well as using the bully pulpit and funding. From your perspective, what are the pros/cons of the federal government getting involved in the civics education crisis? What, if any, is their appropriate role?

Davenport: The most important improvements on the ground in civic education are needed at the state level, establishing civics requirements and teacher training and certification. Still, the federal government has an important role to play in the “air war” of helping the nation understand the importance of civic education. We now spend $54 a year per student on STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education, for example, and only 5 cents on civics. The federal budget for civics has been cut dramatically, to almost nothing, in the last 10 years. So the federal government needs to use its bully pulpit to get out the message about civics and restore funding for it. It also needs to increase the administration of the NAEP tests.

Cooke: Civics education is usually reserved for high school (or postsecondary), and this is the case in Utah. In your opinion, what state or local policies are needed in order to build a “foundation of civic education in the early grades”? 

Davenport: Education in something like civics needs to be built like a layer cake, teaching students something in each grade, so that by the time they get to the required high school course, they have some background and understanding. A few states have begun to define competencies students should develop in each grade, which makes a lot of sense. Waiting until a single course in high school to teach civics is too little, too late.

Cooke: What role can parents play in pushing education toward commonsense solutions to our civics crisis?

Davenport: In his farewell address, President Ronald Reagan pointed out the danger of our not teaching children to develop what he called “an informed patriotism.” And, as Reagan said, this begins at the family dinner table, talking about our country, why it is important, how it came to be, and how it works. Discussing issues of the day in the family is shown to increase civic knowledge. Parents can also hold schools accountable to teach more civic education. One promising dimension of the civic education problem is that there are solutions on lots of levels: parents, teachers, schools, states and the federal government.

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