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Isn’t This Stuff Taught In School? (Stanford Magazine) March 8, 2022

Posted by daviddavenport in Op/Eds.

Illustration of people holding up letters that spell out civics

Isn’t This Stuff Taught in School?

By Rebecca Beyer

WHEN IT COMES TO K-12 civic education in the United States, by almost any measure, the system is failing. A 2018 Education Week survey found that only eight states require a yearlong civics course in high school—and 15 states don’t require one at all.

It’s not because students are gaining that knowledge earlier. On the most recent national assessment, only 24 percent of eighth graders were proficient in the subject. One obvious problem: Half of the students tested hadn’t taken a civics-focused class.

Civics is the study of how our government was formed, how it functions, and what roles individuals play in that process—and currently, its teaching is a hodgepodge. With federal legislation that would authorize billions in grants for civics education stalled, nonprofit organizations and academic researchers are trying to fill the gap. And their efforts are gaining traction.

“On my good days, I’m very optimistic,” says Louise Dubé, executive director of iCivics, a nonprofit civic education provider founded in 2009 by former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, ’50, JD ’52. “This is a unifying idea for all Americans to get behind.”

David Davenport, ’72, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, agrees. In 2020, Davenport authored a report for the Orrin G. Hatch Foundation called “Commonsense Solutions to Our Civics Crisis.” In addition to more funding, testing and teacher training, Davenport recommends the so-called layer cake approach to civics, which begins introducing children to age-appropriate ideas in elementary school. “If you wait for a single, one-semester course in high school, kids don’t have any context,” Davenport says. “They’ll show up at class with nothing.”

One resource for middle and high school teachers is iCivics, which aims to cultivate an appreciation for civic engagement among young people. The organization provides hundreds of free curricular resources—including 14 nonpartisan educational video games, such as Argument Wars (in which players argue real Supreme Court cases), Counties Work (which asks players to manage a county and get reelected) and Do I Have a Right? (which tests players’ knowledge of the Constitution). According to assessments that iCivics embedded in two of its election-related games in 2021, students’ knowledge of civic content improved by 26 percent after playing the games. Perhaps as notable: There was a 38 percent jump in student interest in learning about topics like the Electoral College or participating in voting.

Anyone can access iCivics content on their own at any time—and more than 145,000 teachers and 9 million students in all 50 states do each year. But iCivics has also worked through the Educating for American Democracy initiative to design a roadmap for effective civics education, a project funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities and the U.S. Department of Education. “The American democratic system is not an intuitive system—it needs to be taught,” Dubé says. “Our goal is to rebuild a healthy American democracy and to reimagine civic education to do that.”

For Stanford Graduate School of Education professor Sam Wineburg, PhD ’89, that work begins where American democracy has faced the greatest challenge in recent years: the internet.

In 2014, the Stanford History Education Group that Wineburg leads started the Civic Online Reasoning (COR) program, which provides free lessons designed to help students evaluate information they find online. “We are in an incredibly polarized time, and what’s feeding that is the spread of misinformation,” he says. “If we want to be informed citizens, the way we do that in the 21st century is we go online. We don’t go to the public library to learn about the efficacy of a soda tax or whether we should ban private prisons; we google it.”

In fact, Google is one of COR’s key partners. Last year, the search engine—based in part on research by Wineburg and Michael Caulfield, a research scientist at the University of Washington’s Center for an Informed Public—began including an icon designed to help users in the United States assess the credibility of search results. The feature, which appears as a three-dot menu next to your search results, encourages COR skills such as lateral reading (checking what reputable websites say about a source) and click restraint (intentionally skipping over the first search results, which are often advertisements). Wineburg says the feature is a “small nudge to see if we can make things a little better.”

The primary focus of COR, like iCivics, is to make materials teachers can use in the classroom. Its curriculum—based on the work of professional fact-checkers—includes nearly 30 lesson plans that cover using Wikipedia, evaluating claims on social media and identifying trustworthy evidence, among other topics. “You can preach to teachers until you’re blue in the face,” Wineburg says. “We need materials. We need concrete things. That’s where my efforts are.”

Rebecca Beyer is a Boston-based journalist. Email her at stanford.magazine@stanford.edu.

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