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U.S. News & World Report
States are turning to civics education in an effort to produce informed and active students.

By Lauren Camera | Nov 23, 2018

TWO DAYS AFTER THE midterm election, Republican Gov. Charlie Baker of Massachusetts signed into law a bill that encourages civics education in public schools.

Among other things, the law requires eighth-graders to complete at least one student-led civics project and it establishes a Civics Project Trust Fund, which schools can use for teacher training, curriculum development and to partner with institutions of higher education on projects related to civics. It also creates a nonpartisan high school voter challenge program to raise awareness for eligible students to register or pre-register to vote.

"I'm proud to see this important civics education bill signed into law," Massachusetts state Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz, a Democrat who heads the Joint Committee on Education, said during the signing. "In light of recent reports of voter suppression and the perilous state of our country's civic and political life today, this legislation is especially critical."

Indeed, the legislation comes on the heels of a midterm election marked by "fake news," gerrymandered districts, close contests that demanded recounts, and claims of voter fraud and suppression. Its passage is in many ways a direct response to elected officials, principals, teachers and others in public service careers who lament how little of a role civics plays in classrooms today and how it's urgently needed so that students are prepared to understand and participate in an increasingly complicated electoral system.

Fewer than 1 in 3 schools offer stand-alone civics courses, according to a survey published earlier this year by Education Week Research Center. The survey was given to 524 principals across the country, more than half of whom said their schools are devoting "too little" time to civics education.

"It hasn't been a focus," Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos said in September during a speech to high school students at the National Constitution Center, a nonpartisan museum. "We've been focusing a lot on math, science and reading, which are all, of course, very important subjects. But I think it's really important that students learn about the history of this nation that they are here to actually protect and enhance from this day forward."

But the Bay State isn't the only one legislating on the issue. At least 16 states are currently considering or have enacted bills relating to civics education since January 2017, according to the Education Commission of the States, which tracks and analyzes education policies and legislation.

Arizona and California, for example, passed legislation creating special state seals used on high school diplomas to recognize students who show high proficiency in civics. Georgia formed a Study Committee in its state House of Representatives to evaluate civics education in schools.

Several states have passed legislation that mandates instruction in civics or mandates that students take a civics assessment, or both. A few other states, including Michigan and New Jersey have appropriated funding or are looking to appropriate funding to support and expand the provision of civics education, as Massachusetts' new law does.

As it stands, all 50 states plus the District of Columbia have some type of civics requirements for high school graduation, but those vary widely, according to a 2016 evaluation of civics requirements by the Education Commission of the States. They run the gamut from a general requirement in Montana, for example, that students take two units of social studies to a more specific requirement in Iowa that social studies classes must include citizenship education and other components.

That might seem like a small difference, but it's not: When it comes to subjects like history and social studies, only 11 to 25 percent of the curriculum is typically devoted to civics, according to the Education Week Research Center Survey. Students get the most civics exposure by joining student government or a debate team or through specific class assignments.

More than half of states require some form of civic education assessment. In the most extreme cases, since 2014, at least a dozen states passed laws requiring students take and pass a civics test with questions drawn from the United States Immigration and Naturalization Test in order to receive a high school diploma.

The increased focus on civics education trails surveys showing how little Americans know about the U.S. government: A 2016 survey from the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg Public Policy Center, for example, found that only 26 percent of adults were able to correctly identify all three branches of the government, while 31 percent could not name even one.

That alarmed many policymakers, who've conducted research on the connection between low levels of civic understanding and a host of negative effects, including hardships in overcoming misperceptions about government, spread of such misperceptions and an increased tendency to adopt a partisan mindset.

"This newly enacted law could not have come at a better time," Arielle Jennings, Massachusetts executive director of Generation Citizen and co-leader of the Massachusetts Civic Learning Coalition, says of the Massachusetts legislation. "We are in a moment in our country when young people are seeing the power of their voices and are eager to participate in the civic process."

That turned out to be especially true this midterm election, as an estimated 31 percent of voters aged 18-29 cast a vote – a figure polling experts at the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University called "an extraordinary increase" over turnout in 2014, when just 21 percent of eligible young voters went to the polls. In fact, researchers at Tufts estimate that the turnout among young voters is the highest level of participation among youth in the past quarter century, or at least the last seven midterm elections.

Much of that participation, election experts say, can be traced directly to the February 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, where a former student fatally shot 17 people. The event spurred a wave of youth activism, including the March for Our Lives, where more than 1 million people flooded the National Mall to advocate for stricter gun laws.

"Many people, especially young people, are no longer content to sit on the sidelines while their futures are decided by others," says Massachusetts state Senate President Karen Spilka, a Democrat. "Comprehensive civics education will equip our students with the tools they need to become the informed, active citizens our forefathers imagined when they created our systems of government."

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