Action civics: A bold and necessary response to our nation’s failing civics education

Back in April, The National Review published an article, “Failing the Civics Test, Coast to Coast,” by Grant Addison, which welcomes the Citizenship Test as a graduation requirement in response to the lack civic knowledge among Americans’ and particularly, young Americans. Seeking the most effective ways to build civic knowledge and skills, we at Generation Citizen spend considerable time contemplating the effectiveness of such a Citizenship Test graduation requirement — and spent considerable time contemplating this article. Here’s our response.

In his article “Failing the Civics Test, Coast to Coast,” Grant Addison concludes, “While requiring American public-school students to demonstrate knowledge of 60 basic facts about their country’s history and government — nearly half of which could be gleaned from a few trips through the Hamilton soundtrack — is undoubtedly a humble baseline, it’s a much-needed step in the right direction.” Indeed, the Citizenship Test requirement is a welcome acknowledgement of the need for improved civics education nation-wide. And indeed, it is humble.

To effectively prepare our students for civic life, as public schooling was founded to do, our focus should be on requiring schools to offer dedicated civics courses that use best pedagogical practices for civic learning. Requiring students to memorize rote facts in preparation for the Citizenship Test does not do this. Rather, student-led civics projects, analysis of current events, deliberative discussion, and participation in democratic processes are classroom practices that foster the civic knowledge, skills and motivation youth need for lifelong democratic participation. They increase student performance on civic assessments and ultimately increase students’ intention to vote.

Legislation in Illinois, and a bill introduced in Massachusetts are models of state policy that support this type of action-based civics education. Project-based civics assessment like that mandated in Tennessee evaluates not just civic knowledge as the Citizenship Test does, but important civic skills and critical thinking as well.

It is encouraging to see legislators around the country addressing civics. Yet we need actions that are less humble. We need to go beyond the Citizenship Test requirement and legislate for civics education that will prepare, and empower, future generations to solve our democracy’s problems by being active participants within it.

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