Reflections and Recommendations for The Civics Education Field: Strengths, Challenges, and the Road Ahead

Prepared by Scott Warren, Co-Founder, Generation Citizen, and Departing CEO


For the past ten and a half years, I have served as the CEO of Generation Citizen (GC). GC has established itself as one of the largest and pre-eminent actors in the civics education field, leading programmatic work across the country, and developing a policy and advocacy department in an effort to spread the discipline widely. 

GC’s mission is to ensure that all young people receive an effective Action Civics education. This is intended to signify that we do not feel like all young people should receive Generation Citizen, but rather, that we hope the mutually beneficial combination of our programmatic and advocacy work can lead to broader adoption and spread of Action Civics education across the country.

As part of this ultimate mission, GC has worked on leading the field forward for the purposes of establishing comprehensive civics education, and Action Civics specifically, as a critical discipline towards advancing a more equitable education system, and ultimately, a more just democracy. We have done this through collaborating frequently with other organizations in the field, demonstrating the power and efficacy of our direct programming in classrooms across the country, hosting and attending conferences to push the field towards equity in experiential civic learning, promoting our own thought leadership through reports and op-eds, and pushing concrete legislative and administrative policy initiatives in states across the country. We have collaborated formally with iCivics on an Equity in Civics grant supported by the Hewlett Foundation, published a white paper on Educating for Democracy through the Ford Foundation, designed a 50-state report on Action Civics, and published a 360 Learning Report to elevate best design principles for youth political engagement.

I believe that we, along with many other organizations in the field, have accomplished a great amount in the last ten plus years to move the field forward. Civics education broadly, and Action Civics in particular, is indisputably more prominent. More funding has begun to flow into the field. The need for young people to receive a robust, equitable civics education is more apparent, and acknowledged across the educational and political realms as a necessary reform.

This is not to say that we have been completely successful. GC itself has not been a perfect player: there are those who think we have not been collaborative enough, and have been too aggressive in pushing our own agenda. There is some merit in that criticism. Big change, especially in field-building contexts, requires big action, that sometimes can be controversial. We have always tried to ground our efforts to push the field forward in our core values: doing so with systemic change in mind, rather than solely focusing on pushing our own efforts and programming forward. But we have, of course, been imperfect, and at times, have pursued funding opportunities and quick work over real collaboration.

At the same time, there is much more that needs to be accomplished in the field. This is an unprecedented moment, in which educators, policymakers, and philanthropists alike recognize an urgent need for expanded opportunities to advance effective civics education. This recognized need is coming in a moment in time in which the prospect of an effective, multiracial democracy itself is at risk.

As I leave my position at Generation Citizen in June of 2020, after eleven years of at the helm, this memo attempts to acknowledge the strengths and challenges in the field, while presenting a concrete set of recommendations to push civics education forward.

I do not pretend that these recommendations are completely unbiased. I, of course, have my own vantage point from leading GC, an organization I believe in and want to succeed. I do hope, however, that these recommendations are seen from the perspective of an outgoing leader in the field who has a deep desire to see us all, and specifically young people,as well as our democracy itself, succeed.

I will note that even a memo that attempts to provide recommendations for the civics education field begins with a challenging principle and realization: the field itself has been defined on multiple occasions, but no definition has garnered fieldwide consensus. Thus, an urgent need for the field is to agree upon a set of definitions for what constitutes civic learning and civic knowledge, which can build upon existing efforts that have attempted to engage in the endeavor.

Strengths of the Field
This is a field with numerous strengths that can be leveraged towards ultimate systems change. These strengths include:

  • Diverse Organizations with a Commitment to Collaborate: There is sometimes a perception within the civics education field that there is not sufficient coordination or the promotion of a unified strategy. Yet, especially in the years since 2016, there has been a push towards communication, transparency, and coordination. Much of this has been strengthened by the emergence of CivXNow, the coalition branch of iCivics. There have been (potentially too many) conferences that have helped organizations to work on a coordinated strategy as well.

    There is definitely not perfect communication, transparency, or sufficient emphasis on diversifying leadership in civic learning spaces, but there is much more coordination than pre-2016 levels, which allows for the possibility of a more unified strategy down the line. The opportunity presented is that organizations may coalesce behind a unified funder or organizational strategy: extensive communication is already occurring, despite the lack of complete cohesion. 

I will note that the recent efforts led by Raj Vinnakota at the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation have both facilitated and complicated some of these dynamics. There has been an ability to bring funders together, which is exceptionally needed, but these conversations have occurred in too much of a black-box, without bringing existing practitioners into the field. The primary focus of this effort has been on organizing donors, not necessarily those conducting work on the ground.

Without more intentional work to co-create a field-strategy, one that both recognizes and reaches across ideological divides that have traditionally kept the nexus of civics education players from realizing its full potential as a field this work risks being isolated – with preventable opportunity costs magnified and the possible upsides of intentional collaboration forgone – rather than being efficient, transparent and effective.

  • National Reach: While the civics education field (again, one that needs further definition in itself) is sometimes seen as small, the reality is that there are organizations conducting work in diverse pockets across the country, from urban centers to rural pockets, in nearly every region of the country. Several landscape maps and analyses, including one that GC has produced, have demonstrated the wide array of regions that civics education organizations currently reach. It would serve the field well to use this diversity of geography to demonstrate the demand for the work, and the cross-section of geographies currently promoting civics education.

The opportunity presented through this diverse reach is to invest in place-based scale of effective civics education programming. Rather than a small dose in many geographies, there is the opportunity to deepen work in geographies around the country. For example, Generation Citizen has extensive work in Oklahoma and Texas, Mikva Challenge is going deeper in places as diverse as Madison, Wisconsin, and Cobb County, Georgia, iCivics is working with districts throughout Massachusetts, like Worcester. Local organizations are also engaging in effective work across the country, like Generation Nation (in Charlotte) and the David Mathews Center (in Alabama).

A coordinated place-based strategy could yield large benefits for the field. This is especially promising in the area of civic assessment, where there are not currently concrete statewide models of conducting project-based assessments in civics with a high quality focus. 

  • Unprecedented Opportunity to Scale Programming and Advocacy: This is a moment for civics education. There are new funders interested in the work every day, schools and districts that want to ensure they are implementing and promoting the discipline effectively, and policymakers who want to determine how to enact legislation to promote the work. This understanding of the urgency of the moment is not meant to come from a partisan perspective, but rather, from an acknowledgement that our political discourse has often lead to a mutual suspicion of one another across ideological lines, and there is an urgent need for civics education as a foundational building block to promote a better democracy for us all.

    This urging of the moment is especially true given the current contexts and challenges in our democracy. A better democracy is not just necessary for achieving better political discourse, less polarization, and less economic and political inequality, but more deeply, for augmenting and improving the capacity of young people to understand how political power works, and to wield it to address issues in their communities.

    This point cannot be underscored enough: this moment will not last forever. There has been a myriad of conferences and conversations, at the organization and funder level, focused on coordinating the work. It sometimes seems that the prevailing sense is that the field is not organized enough. Whether or not this is true, the reality is that the field we have is the one we have right now, and the one which must exercise the public-spirited leadership which this moment urgently requires. This moment of civics education sitting near the top of our nation’s public agenda is not an unending one and will pass the field by if not acted upon.This may even happen as early as after the 2020 presidential election.

    Implicit in this assessment is an acknowledgement that there is not a “perfect” time to move the field forward, or to promote increased investment, but there is a possibility of waiting too long for the stars to align. We should take care not to squander the moment.

Challenges of the Field
While the field possesses a myriad of strengths, challenges do exist as well.  Below are some of the most acute challenges to address in the years to come:

  • Insufficient Research and Evaluation Work: While there is unprecedented interest in civics education, and organizations do span the country, there is a perilous lack of effective research and evaluation on the subject. This reality leads to an unfortunate chicken and egg scenario: funders (and educators/districts) want proof points of the efficacy of civics education, but organizations cannot show results without investment into the discipline.

    There are a growing number of scholars interested in this work, and foundations that seem enthusiastic to fund wide-ranging studies. This should be an urgent agreed-upon priority for the field: agreeing to a common set of assessments and standards, and investing in comprehensive research and evaluation that both test existing assumptions regarding effective civics education work, and offer proof points for further expansion. This could include investing in randomized control trials and other robust assessments for diverse programming occurring across the country.

  • Ideological Challenges: Throughout this document, I have noted the unprecedented interest and opportunity for enhanced civics education in communities across the country. But perhaps one of the biggest challenges is that there is not a unified agreement on the meaning of civics education, or even who or what encompasses the civics education “field.” This is true both definitionally, and ideologically.

The ideological distinctions in what constitutes effective – and in some respects, appropriate – civics education may be one of the largest impediments towards a broader field strategy at this moment in time. There is often an implicit belief that civics education can be one of the only reforms in the country that can transcend political beliefs. But, a discipline that is fundamentally predicated on teaching young people to understand and engaging in the political is fundamentally political.

To posit two poles, there are some who believe that civics education should be about young people understanding how government works, largely for the sake of emphasizing the possible impacts of negative, unintended outcomes emerging from certain types government action; the importance of harnessing the power of individuals, market-based solutions, and voluntary associations to solve social challenges; and promoting increased and enhanced civility in our political process. The other pole would posit that effective civics education should be as much about knowledge as it is about action, including formal and informal methods of political participation, and should include acknowledging the oppression and exclusion that has defined our political systems and democracy since its inception. Civic education, through this pole, becomes one way to challenge traditional structures and redistribute political power.

While there may be an opportunity to balance these two poles, there is not enough acknowledgement that these two belief systems may lead to different results. Should all civics education organizations actually work together? What do these fault lines mean?

There is a need for the field to actually address these disputes forthrightly and constructively, rather than a sometimes implicit belief that we can all get to a common set of principles. This does not mean that we should agree upon definitions for effective civics education, but rather, that we should recognize, and to the fullest extent possible, reach across, these differences to strengthen the democracy that we all share in common

I again point to the recent effort funded jointly by the Hewlett Foundation and the Koch Foundation as potentially promising and potentially detrimental in this respect. There is potential in the fact that these ideologically diverse foundations came together to fund a civics education effort. At the same time, I do worry that the result of the effort that emerges is an entity that is unable to address the ideological challenges at play. This concern stems from the fact that the initial goal of the collaboration is to pursue a transpartisan effort, rather than determine the best practices and necessary resources for effective field-building. The goal should be to pursue the most effective form of civics education, rather than trans-partisanship in its own right.

  • Extensive Competition Through Lack of Resources: Historically, the civics education field has been underfunded and under prioritized. This reality has led organizations in the field to develop a deficit mindset: always assuming that the set of resources is fixed and unchanging. This is not an unreasonable assumption: the pie has not increased despite the increase in discourse from foundations. This mindset has led to implicit and explicit competition amongst organizations, who are competing for the same money, and increasingly, in similar geographies.

To be blunt, the scale of the challenge of insufficient civics education is too big for organizations that have $2-6 million budgets to be squabbling over resources and working in similar geographies. There must be an acknowledgement that the problem is much more vast than any one organization can solve on its own, and that the pie must be increased, substantially, for real progress to occur. The organizations in the field are strong individually, but with strengths combined, we could accomplish so much more.

Implicit in this assessment is an acknowledgement that no one program can scale across the country. Instead, there needs to be a focus on systems-change work: convincing states, districts, and schools to place civics as a foundational priority. There is the potential to use an increased focus on place-based work to promote a systems-change framework. 

This systems-change framework should include a broad equity-rooted civics approach for all students. This means that there should be contextualized types of civics education experiences for different students that honors lived experiences, and both the past and present ideals and realities of American democracy.

Recommendations Moving Forward
The below recommendations are just that: ideas for how the field may move forward productively in a time of unprecedented opportunity and need. I would first posit that several of the challenges enumerated above should be answered urgently, namely:

  • An agreed upon set of definitions and approach to understanding and answering the ideological differences that have plagued the field to date. This includes understanding and describing the full spectrum of civics education approaches (without presupposing that a “right” definition exists);
  • Substantial and immediate increased investment in research and evaluation;
  • A focus on systems change, (programmatic expansion should be focused on areas that could have major impact: for example, implementing a new policy (MA), or a region of the country where robust civics education is really needed, or not adequately available) is really needed (ie, the Deep South, the Midwest, and areas where nonprofits are not currently saturated);
  • An investment in a place-based strategy, investing in specific communities, including evaluating a comprehensive set of outcomes, and not focusing on one given program;
  • An acknowledgement that now is the time for urgent movement, in terms of resource allocation and advocacy and policy campaigns, and that there is a possibility that the movement will pass us by.

To address these questions, I would also recommend the following occur:

  • Ironing Out the Field Infrastructure: I have long felt that this is an urgent need for the field. There is no agreed upon leader, at the philanthropic or organizational level, and these questions will remain unanswered unless there is an entity – one without its own programmatic interests – that pushes them forward, and pushes them to a conclusion.

    There is potential at this moment for this coordination to occur: both CivXNow and the Woodrow Wilson Foundation have facilitated collaboration amongst practitioners and funders respectively.  But, to my knowledge, no real conversation has occurred about the long-term infrastructure of the field, and how these organizations would respectively organize the field. This includes Generation Citizen: we have engaged in our own field-building efforts, largely focused of late on promoting equity within the field. These organizations need to come together, aided by funders (but not exclusively led by funders), to determine the needs and infrastructure of a strong field framework going forward. 

There may be the need to ensure that multiple organizations exist, including those that have a generously held, yet clear ideological bent. Indeed, the Joe Foss Institute, recently merged with Arizona State University, has carved out a space on the conservative right to promote civics education, and there may be a need for a similar organization on the left. This is something that should be interrogated, and answered soon. The value to having a counterweight to the Joe Foss Institute, potentially with left-leaning values, is that the aforementioned focus on equity can be brought to the forefront, given the ideological challenges that are pervasive in our political climate.

Along these lines, I do feel that there is an urgent need to engage in comprehensive policy work. There are state legislators across the country who have indicated an interest in pursuing civics education legislative solutions. We have an opportunity, in 2020 specifically, to pursue robust policy solutions in a number of defined states which would significantly further the movement.

It would not take much investment from many of the interested foundations in the field to ensure collaboration: potentially seed funding to these coordinating entities to define a strategy. Transparency is necessary here: different foundations have invested in favorites with different organizations (including Generation Citizen) as it pertains to field-building. We need to formalize the infrastructure of the field in order to maximize an important, impermanent window of opportunity to strengthen civics education for the benefit of our democratic republic.

  • Push for New and Diverse Leadership: The civics education field has been too dominated by white leaders who have led their organizations for a long time. This is not only true for civics education organizational leaders, but also for educators, school administrators, and scholars.

    This has numerous and deep ramifications, including too much focus on a “what’s gotten us here will get us to the next phase,” a perception (or perhaps, reality) that civics education is a white-dominated field that fails to create space for diverse leadership, and extensive blind-spots that come from leaders with strong values but who are directing organizations without a nuanced, ever-evolving understanding of the lived experiences of students and communities who have historically had to fight the hardest for a seat at the table in our democracy. While we have strived to prioritize this value internally, and have indeed made significant strides, we also recognize that we, like other organizations within this field, may not have always gotten this right, or lived fully into our highest aspirations.

    There is an urgent need to diversify leadership in the field. This could come from funders prioritizing resources for talent development and acquisition, as well as leaders in the space being proactive and intentional about succession planning.

These thoughts and recommendations are offered with a deep sense of commitment to the field, to our students, and a deeper sense of humility for all the good work that has been done by so many people. I am hopeful that these recommendations are helpful, and taken as acknowledging the important work that has been done, and the work that must be done to move this field forward urgently.