A Civics Renaissance?

From the Editors | U.S. Civics Education: Real Renaissance or Political Moment? Issue 9 | September 14, 2021

Civics education in the U.S. seems to be getting some long overdue attention. Currently, there are at least 88 bills that have been filed at the state level to enhance civics instruction, as well as a federal bill to provide further funding that is currently languishing in committee. 

Is a long standing civic abscess finally being addressed? This Purple Principle in Print explores this question and some of the many efforts to raise the level of Civics knowledge in these not so United States. 

Americans on Civics: Not Winning Many Gold Medals

Educators we’ve spoken to have confirmed that civics ed, and social studies in general, have taken a back seat to math, science, language arts, and other test-driven subjects in recent decades. Not surprisingly, then, the general lack of civics knowledge among U.S. citizens is woeful.

  • According to a report from the Center for American Progress from Summer 2018, only 23% of 8th graders performed at or above proficient on the National Assessment of Educational Progress Exam civics component. Yet only nine states (and D.C.) require yearlong civics education.
  • According to a 2016 report from the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, only 26% of Americans could name all three branches of government, down from 38% in 2011, a scant five years before.
  • A short, seven-question quiz from Pew in 2018 shows that only about 22% of Americans can answer very basic civics-related questions, such as who casts the deciding vote in a Senate tie.

What Is, and Is Not, Civics? 

Civics is a term often used but with varying interpretations and thus a lack of precision, and some quizzical expressions, around it. 

Civics has no connection to the Honda Civic. We’re not even sure how Honda came up with that.
Civics would also seem to have little connection to civets. But recently in the U.S., viruses have become politicized. Might mammals be next?

Civics should have little connection to cynics who may say citizens have no real voice in our democracy, while ignoring their rights and obligations such as volunteering, mentoring, and, most importantly, voting. For example, the U.S. has exceeded 60% voter turnout only once in the past 50 years – and that was the 2020 election.
n its simplest form then, civics refers to the rights of obligations and citizens to participate in governance – thus an essential element in any democracy, maybe especially so with one as complex as these United States.

Brief History of Civics Education

As far back as the founding of the United States, a principal concern was instiling democratic values, such as critical thinking, civility, and toleration in citizens. But public education of all individuals was not conceived of until the 19th century, especially due to the efforts of Horace Mann, as well as the education reformers Henry Barnard and Catherine Beecher during the Common School Movement.

Civics education is, however, largely a 20th century phenomenon. According to Jeffrey Mirel, this 20th century form of civics – to Americanize the children of immigrants – was seen as a beneficial acquisition, rather than a burden. Mirel also notes a stark divide in civics education between the North and South: the South not willing in most cases to adopt the model of Americanization from the North, particularly for Black Americans who were subjected to second-class citizenship in the era of Jim Crow. 

The Cold War saw a shift in emphasis. While there was still a focus on the civic role of everyday Americans, there was an increased focus on the many “-isms” of the day. This meant that more time was spent on learning about ideology, usually through the lens of democracy versus communism, in the form of the US vs. the USSR. But, according to the Wilson Center, not everyone was so fond of the “know your enemy” approach. Disagreement was common when the question pertained to how to teach about the Soviet Union: existential threat, peer competitor, or something else entirely? This was especially pronounced during the era of McCarthy and the (second) Red Scare.  

In the late 1960s and 70s, the assimilationist model of civics education came under attack from various left-leaning groups who saw this as a form of “cultural imperialism.” Evangelicals also joined the fray, lamenting the lack of religious principles (and the teaching of evolution), especially in the 1990s. Thus, civics came under attack from both sides. Unfortunately, in Mirel’s words, “school leaders have ducked controversy by abandoning the American public school’s historic mission to teach students a common culture that citizens may share.” 

One major source of current concern is the relationship of civics education to other educational initiatives under the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (and its successor, the 2015 Every Student Succeeds Act). According to a report from the Orrin G. Hatch Foundation, social studies generally and civics in particular have been left behind relative to other parts of education, especially STEM. The same report also notes that there is simply a lack of preparation for teachers  to adequately teach civics to America’s students. 

Civics Textbook cover

But we also have fifty state governments, fifty state constitutions, fifty state supreme courts, twelve circuit courts, 3,031 county level governments, tens of thousands of city governments, tens of thousands of town governments (including town hall Meetings), many of which are largely unchanged since the republic’s founding. According to the 2017 Census of Governments, there are 90,126 local governments in the U.S. So… it gets complicated.

It’s difficult, if not dangerous, to read the mind of someone two and a half centuries later, especially one struck by lightning many times. But Franklin lived through the dysfunction of the colonial period governed by the Articles of Confederation. He knew Federalism – as in power sharing between divergent states and a not-yet formed national government – was tricky if not nigh impossible. And that concern has proved well-founded since we continue to struggle with that balance today with new challenges, such as climate change, and enduring ones, such as holding elections.

Or, as Benjamin Franklin is said to have said just after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, “A Republic, if we can keep it.”

Image courtesy of Purple States of America.

50 Versions of Civics Ed

Not surprisingly then, U.S. state-level civics education is literally all over our blue, red, and purple map, with some states having fairly extensive high school classes in civics, others having small units within social studies, some allowing student absences for civic activities, while most do not.

For a relatively up-to-date overview of the various state-level approaches to civics education, see the Education Commission of the States page on the topic or the Center for American Progress.

Image courtesy of The New York Times.

But, as with many important issues, the devil is in the details. This New York Times textbook comparison does an excellent job with those details, comparing textbooks in California and Texas – the two states with major influence on that market due to their sheer size. 

In one publisher’s US History textbook adapted for the two different states:

California students will learn that some white Americans left urban centers as a result of the desire to move away from more “culturally diverse neighborhoods.”

But Texas students will learn that people who moved away from these urban centers did so as a result of  “increasing crime and congestion.”

Civics Today

Where Did Civics Go in the First Place? 

There is very little quality tracking data on when and how civics declined in the U.S. But one trend is clear: stagnation since at least 1998, at a low level of proficiency, across the country. There is also a startling trend uncovered by the Annual National Election Survey: over time, more Americans have come to view government as beholden to special interests rather than the good of all. In 2020, 84% of Americans felt that the government was run for these special interests. By contrast, only 29% of Americans felt this way in 1964.  

Would More Civics Ed Create Higher Voter Turnout?

The U.S. consistently has among the lowest voter participation of any industrialized democracy.  But what about at the state level, where civics education requirements vary greatly? Is there a correlation among states with higher or lower voting participation and the extent of civics education? 
The United States Voter Project has data for state election turnout for both primary and general elections (as far back as 1787!). Some states with more substantial civics education (based on AP scores according to the Center for American Progress) include Connecticut, Minnesota, and Virginia. Those whose civic education is lacking (by the same metric) include Mississippi, Florida, and Nevada. Here are their turnouts for the 2018 midterm elections/2020 generals:

The answer is a definitive maybe. A case could be made that civics education correlates with increased voter turnout, but more thorough analysis would be required to make a causal claim. Hopefully, if and when civics education does gain real traction and funding, it will be possible to track the effects of expanded instruction on voter turnout. 

Polarization and Civics

Much contemporary civics education uses a facts-based approach to understanding American government (e.g. three branches of government) which are not subject to much controversy. But when topics such as slavery in the U.S. Founding is discussed, the relevance of these kinds of historical events/interpretations is subject to contemporary polarization. 

Another area where there is some level of disagreement is whether civics should involve hands-on education. Often there are suspicions about which side of the political divide benefits from civic activism; but, there is reason to believe that community service that is not for a particular cause could still be broadly beneficial. 

Comparatively Speaking

The UK has clearly specified curricula for teaching citizenship, the result of not having a federal system in education. A report from a Select Committee in the UK House of Lords shows similar concerns to the US with respect to creating a unified democratic public that is well-informed.

In Germany, the Federal Ministry of the Interior describes how civic education is grounded in the German Constitution and basic law of the republic. The Interior Ministry also has a Federal Agency for Civic Education whose mission is to promote citizenship. Because Germany is a federal republic, its states are charged with educational policies. Despite this, Germany is praised for its robust civic education

In Canada, civics education (or civic “literacy”) is left to the various provinces and in Mexico to  the states.  

Highlights & Insights from the Podcast

The Purple Principle podcast recently launched a related episode, A Civic Way to Reverse Polarization, available on all major apps. Highlights include interviews: co-hosts of the ever-popular Civics 101 podcast, Hannah McCarthy and Nick Capodice; NH legislator, Marine veteran, and civics teacher, Michael Moffett, on the passage of his recent civics ed bill in New Hampshire; and Indiana Superintendent Dr. Laura Hammack of the school district that won her state’s “We the People” contest six times and the national competition twice as well.

Civics in the Pipeline

As noted, a number of states are looking to raise their civics game, if each in their own way. Here’s a sampling of those efforts: 

New Hampshire

On July 29, 2021, Governor Sununu signed HB320 into law, sponsored by TPP guest LtCol Michael Moffett, which requires a civics competency exam in order to graduate high school. The test to be used is the 128-question test developed by the Immigration and Naturalization Services.


A 2019 bill signed by Governor Pritzker requires a full semester of civics beginning in middle school “which shall help young people acquire and learn to use the skills, knowledge, and attitudes that will prepare them to be competent and responsible citizens throughout their lives.”


Senate bill 194 was made law in June 2021. This bill establishes criteria for the development of curricula, which emphasizes the diversity of Nevada’s population. Additionally, the bill makes clear that social studies curricula across the state must explicitly teach civics-related content.


A bill was signed by Governor Ricketts in 2019 to refocus state social studies curricula on civics and American history.

North Carolina

A 2019 bill in North Carolina creating “civic responsibility education” has unfortunately languished in the state’s Senate.


In Massachusetts, S.2631 was signed by the governor in November 2018. The bill’s purpose is to use funding mechanisms and state programs to encourage active participation in political processes (especially voting-related activity) by high school students. It, unlike many other state-level bills, focuses on active civics.


In May 2021, Colorado Governor Jared Polis signed SB67 into law, which intends to strengthen civic education in the state. The bill outlines educational priorities to emphasize in the development of curriculum, and encourages further review of all state curricula, K-12.

Rhode Island

In Rhode Island, House Bill 5028, signed into law in July 2021, requires schools not only to provide evidence that students are proficient in civics knowledge, but students must also undertake civics-related projects that “make logical arguments and support claims using valid evidence.”


SB72 was introduced and referred to a Senate committee in April 2021. The bill calls for the creation of a specifically civics-focused curriculum, student assessment, and reporting of results back to the legislature.

Federal Efforts: Where does funding expansion stand?

The most recent federal effort to expand civics education is a bipartisan bill introduced by Senators Coon (D-CT) and Cornyn (R-TX), called the “Civics Secures Democracy Act.” It has been read twice and referred to the Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions, where it remains. 

According to iCivics, this bill would allocate $585 million each year for five years “to support education in American civics and history.” The bill was also introduced in the U.S. House by Representatives Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), Tom Cole (R-OK), and Earl Blumenauer (D-OR). 

Section 203 of this bill also includes the entirety of the “USA Civics Act,” a bill introduced in 2019 by Senator John Cornyn (R-TX).  The USA Civics Act was a reauthorization and expansion of a civics grant program representing what would amount to 35% of what the federal government spends on STEM education already. 

Partners in Purple

iCivics was founded by former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. The group “champions equitable and non-partisan civic education, while providing engaging resources that empower educators in the critical task of preparing young people for lifelong civic engagement.” Play their games for yourself! Check out this great profile of the first female Supreme Court Justice.

The Center for Civic Education “helps students develop an increased understanding of the institutions of constitutional democracy and the fundamental principles and values upon which they are founded. Ultimately, the Center “strives to develop an enlightened citizenry by working to increase understanding of the principles, values, institutions, and history of constitutional democracy among teachers, students, and the general public.”

The CPTL at Arizona State University “aims to further research in American political thought and to support civic education at all levels both within and beyond the classroom environment. They are nonpartisan and inter-ideological, “focused on the pursuit of knowledge and the practice of truth as common goods for American politics and culture.”

Generation Citizen “believes every student has the right to learn how to effectively participate as citizens. We inspire civic participation through a proven state standards-aligned action civics class that gives students the opportunity to experience real-world democracy.”

The Close Up Foundation “believes a strong democracy requires active and informed participation by all citizens. Therefore, we seek to serve young people from all communities and backgrounds, regardless of race, religion, gender, socioeconomic level, or academic standing. Since 1971, over 900,000 students, teachers, and parents have participated in Close Up’s Washington, DC-based programs.”

CIRCLE – The Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement – “is a non-partisan, independent research organization focused on youth civic engagement in the United States.”

The Annenberg Classroom provides numerous resources for teaching about the U.S. Constitution. They provide videos, lectures, and documents that provide overviews of important constitutional concepts, law, and American rights.

Founded as a consortium of various civics-focused groups, the Civics Renewal Network aims “to raise the visibility of civics education and to make high-quality resources more accessible to teachers through a one-stop website. The network partners also collaborate on developing resources and on events such as Constitution Day.”

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