By Erin Braun, Director of Outreach, iCivics.org
Two-thirds of Americans can’t identify the three branches of government.
On the last National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) Civics Report Card, two-thirds of students scored below proficient.
Less than one-third of eighth graders can identify the historical purpose behind the Declaration of Independence, and as Justice Sandra Day O’Connor states, “It’s right there in the name!”
However, we also hear statistics that seem to contradict the idea that we are in a civics recession.
American students do well on some of the NAEP questions:
- 74 percent identified the main ruling of Schenck v. United States (1919).
- 72 percent identified the constitutional basis of a search-and-seizure decision (and it’s unlikely the adult population would match that).
But instead of asking what students know about civics, perhaps we need to ask a different question. What do students need to know in order to be effective citizens?
And the short answer to this question is that we don’t know.
We have a good idea of what works in the classroom. A few programs have proven to be particularly effective. In a 2011 study, alumni of the Center for Civic Education’s We the People: The Citizen and the Constitution program knew significantly more about American government than the general public.
Strikingly, 91% of 2011 We the People students knew the rights guaranteed by the First Amendment to the Constitution, compared to 35% of young people.
Digital civic education shows promise. In 2009, Justice O’Connor founded iCivics, which has grown into a suite of 18 civic education video games and over 90 lesson plans—all provided at no cost to teachers.
However, a large number of American students are not exposed to these types of programs.
A recent study of civic opportunities found that race, academic track and a school’s socioeconomic status determine students’ access to civic education. Low-income students, those not heading to college, and students of color receive fewer high-quality civic learning opportunities.
These factors should have nothing to do with the type of civic education offered to our students.
So while we know that certain programs work, we also know that our publically funded education system is providing these opportunities to a tiny minority of the citizenry.
And the question remains: What exactly do American citizens need to know in order to be effective citizens?
Those of us involved in civics education and programming will continue to do our best with proven effective strategies. We’ll do everything we can to reach as many students as possible. But fortunately, there’s a new group at Indiana University – Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI) looking into the larger question.
And the answers they discover could change how we teach civics forever.
School of Public and Environmental Affairs (SPEA) professor Sheila Kennedy created the Center for Civic Literacy (CCL) with an interdisciplinary team of colleagues from the fields of bioethics, business and social work. The CCL will explore the knowledge needed across disciplines for an individual to become an effective citizen.
As a SPEA alumna, CCL former researcher, and We the People alumna who now directs outreach for Justice O’Connor’s iCivics, I could not be happier that IUPUI has stepped up to the plate.
 NAEP Questions Tool, as cited in Levine, Peter: Education for a Civil Society. Chapter 2 of Making Civics Count: Citizenship Education for a New Generation, 2012, edited by Campbell, Levinson & Hess.
Erin Braun is Director of Outreach for Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s iCivics. Prior to joining iCivics, she was a Graduate Research Assistant at the Indiana University Public Policy Institute, where she helped create the Center for Civic Literacy while obtaining her Masters in Public Affairs with Honors. Prior to SPEA, she served as Indiana’s Director of Civic Education for six years and is a former United States Marine. This year, she was one of three SPEA graduate students to receive the William M. Plater Civic Engagement Medallion for her service to the community while at IUPUI.