Megan Jelinger/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

America’s Education Problem: Civic Illiteracy

Sebastian Muriel
Mar 22 · 4 min read

America has a severe education problem. In 2019, we learned that comprehension among 15-year olds has remained stagnant for the last two decades, one-fifth of 15-year olds are reading below a 10-year old level, and more than 60% of fourth- and eighth-grade students aren’t proficient readers. All of this, despite bipartisan education overhauls under the Bush and Obama administrations — No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, Common Core — billions of dollars lost to uneven results and flawed rollouts.

Although these reforms were well-intentioned, they’ve eclipsed a severe problem in our education system that impacts the next generation of voters: civic illiteracy.

What’s happening now: In over a half-dozen states, students, parents, and civil rights advocacy groups have filed lawsuits against federal and state governments over the poor quality of their education. The legal complaints vary from school funding to literacy to segregation — but all of them are united in their argument that states are violating their constitutions by denying children a quality education. The crucial difference in this wave of litigation is the available evidence. Over the last decade, states have gathered test score data that reveals how many children are failing to reach academic goals.

A closer look: One of those lawsuits, in Rhode Island, filed against the federal government, argues that failing to prepare children for citizenship violates their Constitutional right to participate in democracy. According to the suit, the state does not require schools to offer courses in government or civics, does not require standardized tests in those subjects, and does not train teachers in civics. The suit also argues that the state has failed to prepare Latino immigrants and students with special needs to acquire basic academic skills. And it’s not up for debate: among eighth grade English-language learners in 39 states, Rhode Island ranked last in math and second to last in reading, according to the 2017 National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP).

The bigger picture: Rhode Island is a microcosm of a nationally relevant problem. Although more than half the states require some form of testing for civics, the majority don’t hold schools accountable for teaching civics. And it shows: only 23 percent of eighth-graders were proficient in civics, according to the 2014 NAEP.

Why it matters now: Civic illiteracy contributes to increases in social polarization, ideological sorting, and hostility toward opposing views. And we already have a civic illiteracy problem: a 2019 survey by the Annenberg Public Policy Center found that American adults know very little about the US government; for example, only 39% were able to correctly identify all three branches of government, and more than a fifth weren’t able to name one. If our kids aren’t civically educated, they are unlikely to overcome misperceptions about the government. And to make matters worse — over the past two decades, the public has increasingly equated their partisan mindset to their personal identity, leading to ideologically-similar groups. We can prevent this for the next generation: research shows that civic literacy among students buffers against polarizing trends and promotes inclusivity.

What’s been tried before: In 2015, policy advocates throughout the states pushed the Civics Education Initiative, which was a state-level legislative agenda that would require high school students to pass a civics test modeled after the US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) naturalization exam. At the end of the initiative (2017), 18 states failed to pass civics education initiative legislation, which may have been due to anxieties over teachers shaping their lesson plans around a mandated exam — a haunting echo from the days of No Child Left Behind and Common Core. By 2019, just over 18 states incorporated the USCIS exam in their assessment practices. Those states saw near-100% passage rates, which has led to speculation on whether this one exam is a sufficient benchmark for measuring a student’s civic literacy. Experts suggest a more dynamic approach that encompasses extracurricular activities and entire courses dedicated to the subject.

Although the initiative was a step in the right direction, it’s not enough: a 2016 report found that only 17 states included civics or social studies in their accountability systems, which are statutory procedures that state education agencies use to set academic goals for students and schools and to monitor progress.

In 2018, only nine states mentioned social studies in their accountability systems, which is probably due to the rollout of the Every Student Succeeds Act, the federal law that gave states the power to largely define their own accountability systems. Without a mention in accountability systems, rigorous civics education remains a choice for states, when it should be a federal requirement.

Where we are now: In 2019, Congress considered a $30 million measure to enhance civics education in response to a concern of civic illiteracy, with specific initiatives that went beyond a mere exam. The bill was introduced in the House a year ago, with 62 cosponsors, but no further action has been taken on the bill. Additionally, the Trump Administration’s 2020 budget proposal to the Department of Education suggested eliminating all grant funding for American history and civics education, which was at a mere $4.8 million in 2019.

Looking ahead: The next generation of voters are being set up to remain as civically illiterate as today’s adults, when it’s entirely within our power to prevent another instance of an ill-equipped electorate during an age of rampant misinformation and polarizing politics. Despite multi-billion dollar education overhauls over the last 20 years, the Education Department has missed one of the most pressing issues that will impact the integrity of our democracy for the next generation: preparing our kids for informed citizenship.

Special thanks to Dana Goldstein at the New York Times for her extensive coverage of education, which provided much of the data cited in this article.

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