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Renewing Our Commitment to US History and Civics | Commentary

By Alan D. Solomont and Peter Levine Teaching civics in our schools is vitally important because our political system depends on the informed and responsible participation of American citizens. The framers did not create a system that will run on its own. A dynamic and robust democracy requires constant engagement, vigilance and creativity by great numbers of citizens.  

These necessary skills don’t come automatically. People need opportunities to learn to be effective and responsible citizens. Survey and test data show that younger Americans are not learning ideas and skills well in the domains of civics and US history. For instance, only a quarter of young people reach “proficient” on the National Assessment of Educational Progress Civics Assessment. Students who receive more and better civics instruction generally score higher.  

We also see huge gaps in which of our students are receiving good civics and history education. These gaps threaten to disenfranchise some of our fellow citizens by not affording them the basic civic education necessary for informed and engaged civic participation.  

In the most recent NAEP, civics scores were 27 points lower for African American and 23 points lower for Latino students.  

Nevertheless, the federal government has no program or policy right now to support civic education in our schools. All specific federal financial support for teaching civics and American History was eliminated in 2011. Omitting civics and the disciplines that support good citizenship—history, economics, and geography—is a serious oversight.  

An important opportunity has arisen to address this omission. Sens. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and Patty Murray, D-Wash., the chairman and ranking member of the Senate Health, Education, Pensions and Labor Committee, have helped usher through the Senate a bill reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Their bill includes competitive grant programs for civics, US history and other social studies fields. One of these grant programs would address inequality by supporting programs targeted to inner-city and rural schools and schools serving lower-income populations.  

The federal role should be limited. There is certainly no call for a national curriculum in civics and history, nor for high-stakes federal tests. States, districts, and schools should retain the basic right to make decisions about what and how to teach civics. Still, teachers report a serious lack of high-quality materials, lesson plans, and activities. They also struggle to master the content and teaching methods and they report scarce opportunities to continue their own learning. States are reluctant to invest in filling these needs because they see the demand as national and don’t want to use their own limited funds to serve all other 49 states. With a tiny percentage of the US Department of Education’s budget, the federal government could achieve a great deal if it invested in high-quality programs that were rigorously evaluated. Once the government supports the development of effective methods and materials, companies can help expand the market for these products.  

The federal government has a special role in promoting innovation. To be sure, the study of civics and US history involves perennial topics, such as basic ideas of freedom and equality and basic documents like the Constitution and Gettysburg Address. But today’s young people get political news and information from a whole new 24-hour, seven-day-a-week, online media environment, and they need news skills to navigate the 21st century political system.  

Meanwhile, we have learned a lot about how to teach civics, and we can do better than an old-fashioned lecture on how bills pass Congress. Competitive grant programs will allow for the development of new and innovative programs that utilize digital and new media to make civics and history more interesting and engaging for students in the 21st Century.  

These competitive grants will also send a strong signal that civics and US history are as important to our nation's future as math, science and literacy.  

It is unacceptable and perilous for American students to be receiving poor and unequal civic education and for the federal government to have no commitment at all to improving the teaching of civics and American history. We need to focus on giving our students the tools and opportunities that allow them to become not only good stewards of American history and civics, but also pioneers of ideas that can strengthen and transform America. Passing the Senate bill through Congress and sending it to the president’s desk for signature into law would be an important first step.  

Alan D. Solomont is a former U.S. ambassador to Spain and Andorra and is dean of the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service at Tufts University. Peter Levine is associate dean for research of the Tisch College.

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