U.S. History of Civics part 5: The early 2000s to the year 2020

July 16, 2020

The following essay is part 5 in a series that discusses the history of civics education in America.

U.S. History of Civics part 1: The Founders’ vision — ‘What species of knowledge can be equally important?’

U.S. History of Civics part 2: School reforms for COVID-19 point us to successful ed reformers in American history

U.S. History of Civics part 3: The ‘birth certificate’ of social studies

U.S. History of Civics part 4: The U.S. Department of Education (as we know it) is born

Today, rampant civil unrest, a public health crisis, and a divisive presidential election leave Americans desperate to feel like our foundation is secure again. A robust, accurate history and civics education will be part of regaining that sense of security. The recent history of civics education has a lot to tell us about how to better emphasize civics and history in our public schools.

Using the bully pulpit, recent presidential administrations have left unique footprints in education policy. But despite their unique elements, they have all effectively de-emphasized civics education.

On the other hand, individual state governments – which have clear authority to make education laws –  have only as of late generated the motivation to tackle civics education. There is no doubt that current political turmoil has sparked some of this renewed interest, and the continuation of this turmoil will make reforms to civics education one of the defining education policies of our day.

Federal government continues to incentivize subjects other than civics

The trend in education policy has been to pay lip service to civics education while prioritizing other reforms. Especially at the federal level, policy incentives, penalties, and funding decisions have led educators to focus on reforms in math, reading, science and technology, as well as academic standards, at the expense of an explicitly civic mission of schools.


No Child Left Behind (NCLB), for example, which President George W. Bush signed into law in 2002, required the creation of academic standards and testing for math and reading. Efforts to create subparts to address civics education like the Education for Democracy Act were included, but for educators NCLB amounted to chasing “yearly adequate progress” in math and reading. The impacts on civics education of the Bush administration and NCLB as well as previous administrations’ policies are discussed in greater detail in part 4.


Likewise, the policies of President Barack Obama’s administration often overshadowed civics education. In 2009, the administration pushed Race to the Top, a competitive grant program which made adoption of the Common Core State Standards an option in the application process. The standards did not offer discipline-specific social studies standards, but they touched on “literacy” in a number of areas including history, social studies and science and technical subjects. The administration’s implicit endorsement of the standards alarmed many parents and state leaders who feared federal micromanagement in education. The Common Core became one of the administration’s most controversial education policies

The Obama administration in 2013 championed Educate to Innovate, a campaign that used public/private partnerships to beef up STEM education. Like other initiatives – NCLB, A Nation at Risk, and the National Defense Act after Sputnik – the initiative focused the nation on math or science or reading, justified by the national economy or security. Then in 2015, the administration earned bipartisan victory with the Every Student Succeeds Act, which attempted to restore flexibility to the states. These and other policies largely took the limelight.

With regard to civics education, in January 2012, the administration published its road map for civic learning, “Advancing Civic Learning and Engagement in Democracy: A Road Map and Call to Action.” The administration also commissioned a report on improvements in civics learning for higher education, titled “A Crucible Moment: College Learning and Democracy’s Future.”


The U.S. Department of Education under the Trump administration has attempted to make its brand reducing federal intervention in education rather than expanding any particular initiative, which means civics education received little attention. That is, until 2020, when civil unrest and a debate about our nation’s narrative prompted the administration to create the 1776 Commission and champion “patriotic education.”

Prior to this, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos had spoken about the concern over a lack of civics education, but her department had taken no significant action to address it thus far. The administration website hosts grants for teacher development and activities in history and civics education.

Though the Trump administration emphasized staying out of education, it had not completely abandoned the bully pulpit in education, largely advocating for K-12 education choice policies. For example, the administration championed the Education Freedom Scholarships for states, pulling criticism from the education establishment for potentially hurting public schools as well as engendering tentative praise from conservatives who like education choice but dislike policies from the federal level.

The Trump administration has garnered attention for other education topics as well, including significant education budget cuts, changes to Title IX campus sexual assault procedures, and more recently, its response to the COVID-19 pandemic, including plans for reopening schools after the spring 2020 school closures.

Other national developments and studies

Though the federal government has rarely made civics education its focus, there is some discussion among scholars today about a national civics education curriculum. The interest stems in part from growing evidence that America does not have adequate civics understanding, but others are wary of a push at the national level.

According to a 2019 report, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP, also called the Nation’s Report Card) has persistently shown that less than 25% of U.S. students since 1998 are proficient in the subject of U.S. civics. An annual Annenberg Constitution Day Civics survey for 2017 reveals similar findings – only a quarter (26 percent) of Americans can name the three branches of government, and more than a third (37 percent) are unable to name any of the rights under the First Amendment. High school and college students in America today are less likely than 15 years ago to volunteer in their community or give to a charity even though they express higher levels of interest in doing so than in the past half-century.

Civics education at the state level

Education is the responsibility of state and local government. As of 2016, all states address civics education in some way, but the range of policy approaches vary widely. As of 2018, only eight states have a yearlong civics or government class as a graduation requirement, and only 19 states require a civics-related exam for high school graduation – some of which are based on the naturalization test, a policy advocated for by the Joe Foss Institute. Utah currently has this requirement. Today, more than 15 states require this test, though battles to remove or create this policy continue today.

Civics education with an emphasis on a participation piece has garnered more attention. For example, “action civics,” a method of teaching civics through experience, has become a common topic in policy circles. Utah passed an action civics bill in 2020.

Civics education that emphasizes participation is not new, however. In 2013, 15 professional organizations and 20 states published The College, Career, and Civic Life (C3) Framework for Social Studies State Standards. It offered states “fewer, clearer, and higher standards for instruction in

civics, economics, geography, and history, kindergarten through high school.” It includes a discussion of “apply knowledge and ideas in real world settings.”

As states awaken to the crisis of inadequate civic understanding and efforts to reframe the story of America’s founding, states will inevitably seek options to improve, including standards revisions, civic education seals on high school diplomas, improved civics tests, action civics such as civic engagement projects or service learning, and more.

Retelling of American past and what it means for our future

Interest as well as deep concern is growing in America over the current state of civics and history education. The New York Times 1619 Project, published in 2019, is retelling the American Founding with its beginnings in slavery in 1619 rather than with independence in 1776. It has created a wave of concern that history is being rewritten. The project drew heavy criticism from historians for its ahistorical claim that the Revolution was fought over slavery, resulting in a redaction of that claim from the project. However, before the correction, a companion 1619 Project school curriculum was created and adopted by many schools. So far, 3,500 schools across the country have adopted this curriculum.

While the 1619 Project is the newest iteration of an American history retelling, efforts to reframe the American origin story in schools are not necessarily new. In 1980 Howard Zinn, a historian and socialist thinker, published A People’s History of the United States, which focuses on the exploitation of the masses in America. The book has long been taught in classrooms across the country.

But nationwide civil unrest in 2020 over police reform and racial injustice – seen in violent riots and the tearing down of historical statues – has given life to the 1619 Project. Other civics education organizations, many of which have been around for years, also offer distinctive curriculum and resources for civics and history education. These include the Bill of Rights Institute, iCivics, Generation Citizen, Ashbrook Center, James Madison Institute and more.

The disparity in the tone and information among these groups reveals a growing divide in our nation’s founding narrative – further fueling the polarization that is the hallmark of our current national politics. Rigorous education in American history and civics is an essential component in rebuilding constructive political dialogue and policy outcomes, by helping us to positively engage with the civic process ourselves. On the other hand, without better education in history and civics, America’s future points toward increasing division, less competent governance, and continuing social decline.

U.S. History of Civics part 6: Utah’s story

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