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Urgency in our State of Affairs

In the wake of the 2016 election, people’s knowledge of and trust in our government institutions are at near record lows. Now, more than ever, incivility and misinformation are growing. Communities are increasingly polarized; unable to respectfully disagree with each other or consider ideas from different perspectives. Unsurprisingly, given these low levels of trust in our institutions, engagement in civic life is low. Our American democracy is in crisis.

Young people especially are disconnected from civic life. Youth turnout in the 2016 election was lower than other age groups, with just 50% of eligible young voter turnout. Even worse: youth are dangerously uninformed about the basics of our democracy and politics. In a 2012 national survey, just 22% of 18-24 year olds correctly answered two factual questions (out of two) about the candidates’ positions on the issues they cared about most. And in 2014, just 23% of students tested “proficient” on the 8th grade civics test in the Nation’s Report Card. Civic ignorance is even greater for minority students: 50% of Latinx 12th graders and over 60% of black 12th graders do not even have a “basic” understanding of government.

In the aftermath of the tragedy at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, the nation has been taken by the leadership, confidence, and poise of student leaders. They have emerged as eloquent advocates for political change at the local, state, and national level. One of the reasons these students are able to articulate themselves so well is because they are the beneficiaries of what is arguably one of the nation’s most comprehensive and successful efforts to teach civics.

Over the past seven years, Florida has implemented one of the more aggressive efforts to increase civic education in public schools after it adopted the Sandra Day O’Connor Civic Education Act. The Act prescribes a civics class in seventh grade with a mandatory test, required to graduate from middle school, and additional civics instruction in high school. The state also funded ongoing teacher professional development through the Florida Joint Center on Citizenship.

Evidence suggests the initiative is having a positive impact. The percentage of students who passed the state’s seventh grade civics exam has gone up from 61% in 2014 to 70% in 2017. At Westglades Middle School, which feeds into Parkland, scores were even higher: 86% versus 70% statewide. Unquestionably, the students of Parkland had an excellent civics education even before they set foot in high school.

Florida is, unfortunately, an outlier and not the norm. Of the 40 states that require a civics coursework, only nine require a full year of instruction, and only 17 require a civics exam to graduate.

Florida’s 2018 seniors are the first class to graduate after the implementation of the Act began. While the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School students benefitted from an overall high quality education, all of Florida’s students now have opportunities for high quality civic education as a result of the investments made by the state.

Building on Previous Work

In September 2017, iCivics –founded by Justice Sandra Day O’Connor (U.S. Supreme Court, Ret.), – the Jonathan Tisch College of Civic Life at Tufts University, the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools, the Lou Frey Institute at the University of Central Florida and Philanthropy for Active Civic Engagement Funders co-hosted a national summit to highlight both the impact of civic education and the need to build on existing successes in the field. The Democracy at a Crossroads: Our Nation’s Future Needs Innovative Civic Learning Now! National Summit raised awareness about this issue and showcased solutions to make the case that resources are needed to expand proven practices. At the summit, Dr. Peter Levine and Dr. Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg from CIRCLE at Tufts University released a white paper on the state of civic education The Republic is (Still) at Risk – and Civics is Part of the Solution which featured promising new data about state level interventions that are revolutionizing the field and had significant impact on student achievement.

For instance, Illinois recently mandated a high school civics course and funded professional development for teachers through a public-private partnership. Models of systemic change like those in Illinois and Florida are discussed in the paper as possible solutions to the lack of trust and decline of civil society. Other states have also begun to respond to this call: Tennessee has instituted a universal requirement for a civics portfolio and Washington recently strengthened its civics course requirements and added funding for professional development. Comprehensive state models are showing signs of promise and sustained impact. They can be replicated but require greater awareness and leadership from policymakers.

The Democracy at a Crossroads Summit raised awareness about this issue and showcased solutions to make the case that resources are needed to expand proven practices.

A New National Strategy

Given this unique and challenging time, we urgently need to build a national strategy that expands quality civic education standards at the elementary, middle, and high school levels to ensure that future generations:

This common understanding and purpose – which must exist across partisan divides – is critical to a healthy civil society in a democracy.

The Approach

If we are to restore trust and faith in our nation’s institutions, we will need to reaffirm the role civic education plays in preserving American democracy and work to raise civic education standards in states across the country. We need a broad national public awareness campaign coupled with strategic engagement in several key states. This will enable advocates and stakeholders to seize public momentum and concern for our nation’s civic health while pushing for civics education mandates within existing curriculum and standards.

To prepare a thoughtful campaign to achieve these goals, we are approaching the systems change through four key axes:

Underlying all four axes of this approach is a coalition of civic learning providers, philanthropic leaders, academics, civics research experts and other supporters.