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Civics and Citizenship Education

A National Education Goal, Formal Instruction, The Informal Curriculum, Concerns And Issues, Improving Civic Education

For more than 200 years–from the time of the country's founding to the early twenty-first century–Americans have believed that the primary purpose of U.S. schools is to educate young people for responsible citizenship.

Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and others of the nation's founders realized that the establishment of well-constructed political institutions was not in itself a sufficiently strong foundation to maintain constitutional democracy. They knew that a free society must ultimately depend on its citizens–on their knowledge, skills, and civic virtue. They believed that schools must foster the qualities of mind and heart required for successful government within a constitutional democracy.

Americans continue to believe that schools have a civic mission. The 32nd Annual Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll, conducted in the year 2000, asked respondents what they considered the most important purpose of the nation's schools. They ranked "preparing people to become responsible citizens" as number one. Other purposes such as "helping people become economically self sufficient," "promoting cultural unity," and "improving social condition" were mentioned but were considered of lesser importance.

Since the first Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll in 1968, the public has not wavered in its conviction that the central mission of schools is educating young people for citizenship. This conviction exists whether or not respondents have children in school, and whether or not their children are in public or private school.

A National Education Goal

When the U.S. Congress passed the Goals 2000: Educate America Act (Pub. L. 103-227), it established eight national goals for education. Two of those goals dealt specifically with civic education. The law specifies that students will "leave grades four, eight, and twelve having demonstrated competency over challenging subject matter including … civics and government … so that they may be prepared for responsible citizenship." The Educate America Act also charges schools with seeing that all students are "involved in activities that promote and demonstrate … good citizenship, community service and personal responsibility." To achieve these goals, schools address citizenship in both the formal and informal curriculum.

Formal Instruction

All states require instruction in civics and government, but the amount and rigor of that instruction varies. Three-fourths of all states have statutes mandating instruction in specific civic topics. More than half of all states currently require students to take a government or civics course in high school.

The formal curriculum has three major tasks: providing students with civic knowledge, developing their civic skills, and fostering those dispositions or traits of private and public character essential for citizens in a constitutional democracy.

Civic knowledge. Civic knowledge can be defined as the range of factual information and understandings about civics stored in long-term memory. Formal instruction in civics and government seeks to provide a basic and realistic understanding of civic life, politics, and government. It familiarizes students with the constitutions of the United States and the state in which they live, because these and other core documents (e.g., the Declaration of Independence, the Federalist Papers, and landmark Supreme Court decisions) provide criteria that citizens can use to judge the means and ends of government. Formal instruction also emphasizes the rights and the responsibilities of citizens.

An additional purpose of the formal curriculum is to promote an understanding of world affairs. This includes awareness of how and why one's own security, quality of life, and economic well-being are connected to that of other countries, as well as to major regional, international, or transnational organizations.

Civic skills. If citizens are to exercise their rights and discharge their responsibilities they not only need to acquire a body of knowledge, they also need to develop intellectual and participatory skills. Intellectual skills essential for citizenship sometimes are called critical thinking skills. The National Standards for Civics and Government and the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) Civics Assessment categorize these intellectual skills as: identifying and describing; explaining and analyzing; and evaluating, taking, and defending positions on public issues. The National Standards identify three participatory skills: interacting, monitoring, and influencing. These are skills that enable citizens to affect the outcomes of political processes.

Civic dispositions. Civic dispositions are the traits of public and private character essential to democracy. Through instruction and experiences that schools provide, students develop traits of private character such as moral responsibility, self-discipline, and respect for the worth and dignity of every individual. Schools are also concerned with developing traits of public character such as public spiritedness, civility, respect for the rule of law, critical-mindedness, and a willingness to listen, negotiate, and compromise.

The Informal Curriculum

Civic education is part of the informal, as well as the formal, curriculum. The informal curriculum encompasses the governance of the school community, the relationships among those within it, and extracurricular or cocurricular activities.

Research has consistently demonstrated the positive effects of students participating in the governance of their classrooms and school, as well as in cocurricular activities. The National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health has found that school engagement is a critical protective factor against a variety of risky behaviors–influenced in good measure by perceived caring from teachers and high expectations for student performance.

Students who serve as officers of student organizations are more motivated to learn, more self-confident, and exhibit greater leadership capabilities. Research also confirms that involvement in school activities increases civic engagement in later life. Cocurricular activities that enhance students' civic knowledge, skills, and dispositions include elections, debates, discussions, mock trials, and simulated legislative hearings. Students' understanding of how democracy works is also furthered by observing government agencies in action, as well as by interacting with government officials who visit their classrooms.

Community service is another cocurricular dimension of civic education. Community service learning has goals beyond motivating personal kindness in the society; service is viewed as a means of connecting what is learned in the classroom with "the real world" and with a better understanding of public policy. The National Center for Education Statistics estimates that 83 percent of high schools and 77 percent of middle schools have students participating in community service activities in the early twenty-first century.

Concerns And Issues

If Americans are agreed that the primary purpose of schools is to "educate people for responsible citizenship," then one would expect civic education to have a prominent place in the curriculum, but this is not the case. Reading and mathematics are the primary focus in elementary schools. Civic education is neglected at the secondary level as well, as a plethora of recent studies reveal:

  • The NAEP Civics Assessment, also known as the "Civics Report for the Nation," found in 1998 that more than 30 percent of all students tested at grades four, eight, and twelve scored below a Basic level of understanding of civics and government. Another 39 to 48 percent scored at the Basic level, defined as a "partial mastery of the knowledge and skills that are fundamental to proficient work at a given grade." The National Assessment Governing Board, however, has said that the Basic level should not be considered an acceptable goal; rather, all students should attain the Proficient level. Even so, only 21 to 22 percent scored at the Proficient level. A mere 2 to 4 percent achieved the Advanced level signifying superior performance.
  • A National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) Trend Report found a trend toward less frequent social studies classes in grade four. In 1988, almost half of fourth grade nationwide reported daily classes, but in 1998 daily classes for fourth graders had dropped to 39 percent.
  • A Council of Chief State School Officers survey found that almost all states regularly assess mathematics and reading, while about twothirds assess writing. However, not even half of the states assess social studies, which includes civics and government.

Improving Civic Education

The need to improve civic education is recognized not only in the United States, but in other countries as well. Review and rethinking is underway in well-developed and long-standing democracies, as well as in some postcommunist countries. Studies conducted in twenty-four countries by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA), confirm a universal or near-universal commitment to certain goals or themes. There is agreement that civic education should be cross-disciplinary, participative, interactive, related to life, conducted in a nonauthoritarian environment, cognizant of social diversity, and coconstructed with parents and the community, including nongovernmental organizations.

While there is general agreement with the goals enunciated in the IEA study, Americans are voicing some additional needs. The American Political Science Association, the National Alliance for Civic Education, and the Center for Civic Education have all called for an increase in the amount, quality, and visibility of civic education. These organizations want to dramatically increase high-quality pre-service and in-service training for teachers of civics and government. An additional goal that these organizations seek is to encourage the federal government to administer the NAEP Civics Assessment more frequently and with state-level results to make it more useful for improving state and local civic education programs. Two national commissions, the National Commission of Civic Renewal and the United States Commission on Immigration Reform, have urged that every state require all students to demonstrate a mastery of basic civic knowledge and concepts as a condition of high school graduation.


CENTER FOR CIVIC EDUCATION. 1991. Civitas: A Framework for Civic Education. Calabasas, CA: Center for Civic Education.

CENTER FOR CIVIC EDUCATION. 1994. National Standards for Civics and Government. Calabasas, CA: Center for Civic Education.

GUTMANN, AMY. 1999. Democratic Education, revised edition. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

LYNDON B. JOHNSON SCHOOL OF PUBLIC AFFAIRS. 1999. The Civic Education of American Youth: From State Policies to School District Practices. Policy Research Project Report Number 133. Austin: University of Texas Board of Regents.

MANN, SHEILAH, and PATRICK, JOHN, J., eds. 2000. Education for Civic Engagement in Democracy. Bloomington, IN: ERIC Clearinghouse for Social Studies/Social Science Education.

MCDONNELL, LORRAINE M.; TIMPANE, P. MICHAEL; and BENJAMIN, ROGER, eds. 2000. Rediscovering the Democratic Purposes of Education. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas.

NATIONAL CENTER FOR EDUCATION STATISTICS. 2001. The Next Generation of Citizens: NAEP Civics Assessments–1988 and 1998. NCES 2001-452. Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics.

NATIONAL COMMISSION ON CIVIC RENEWAL. 1998. A Nation of Spectators: How Civic Disengagement Weakens America and What We Can Do About It. College Park: University of Maryland.

NIEMI, RICHARD G., and JUNN, JANE. 1998. Civic Education: What Makes Students Learn. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.


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