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Democracy in crisis: the decline of civic learning

The groundbreaking report, “Guardian of Democracy: The Civic Mission of Schools,” to be released Sept. 16 at the Civic Innovators Forum of the Annual National Conference on Citizenship in Philadelphia, underscores the urgent need for civic education.


Only a third of Americans can name the three branches of government. Almost three years into President Barack Obama’s term, nearly one in three Americans mistakenly believe he is Muslim. A similar percentage believed that President George W. Bush was complicit in the 9/11 terrorist plot. Just a third of the country’s students scored proficient on the most recent nationwide assessment of civics. And Jay Leno regularly gets laughs with his “Jay Walking” routine, which highlights examples of civic ignorance.

Civic learning has reached a new low. At a time when the country is mired in a debt crisis and productive public discourse has been replaced by divisive rhetoric and a disregard for facts, Americans lack the basic civic knowledge to become engaged, informed citizens.

But amid these gloomy anecdotes and statistics, there’s reason for hope. A new study by the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools offers recommendations for parents, schools and state and national policymakers to reverse this troubling trend and invigorate civic education to ensure a more engaged population today and generations to come. The report underscores the worrisome statistics on civic learning indicate more than just a decline, but a crisis in civic education that cries out for immediate action.

“The better educated our citizens are, the better equipped they will be to preserve the system of government we have,” writes former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, co-chair of the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools. “And we have to start with the education of our nation’s young people. Knowledge about our government is not handed down through the gene pool. Every generation has to learn it, and we have some work to do.”

The groundbreaking report, “Guardian of Democracy: The Civic Mission of Schools,” to be released Sept. 16 at the Civic Innovators Forum of the Annual National Conference on Citizenship in Philadelphia, underscores how investing in civic education is essential to strengthening democracy.

Schools are ground-zero for improving civics. To fix the problem, the authors recommend focusing on six areas: classroom instruction, discussion of current events, encouraging students to get involved in service learning, extracurricular activities, school government and mock elections that dive home how the democratic process works.

Among the key policy recommendations to promote civic learning:
For schools:

  • Transform how civics is taught. Instead of relying on dry facts, liven up instruction and focus on how citizens can participate in civic life.
  • Don’t keep civics on the back burner. Teach civics across the curriculum, integrating it into all subjects.
  • Don’t stop at high school ¾ require civics in college. All students, regardless of major, should take at least one civics course.

For policy makers:

  • Measure instruction. Hold schools and districts accountable for civic learning by including it in state assessments and on state report cards.
  • Establish a competitive grant program for civic learning within the U.S. Department of Education to support cutting-edge civic learning projects, provide research for strategies that work and develop programs for poor schools.

Why civics?

As a practical matter, research shows that civic learning can help improve dropout rates, make classrooms more engaging and better prepare students to compete in the new economy.

Moreover, reclaiming civic education improves our democracy. It empowers citizens to hold their elected officials accountable, arms them with knowledge and interest to have meaningful discourse, and by giving every citizen ¾ regardless of background ¾ the tools to participate, civics helps achieve the truly American ideal of civic equality.

“For our representative democracy to thrive, citizens must be able and willing to participate constructively in dialogue on issues, and make discriminating judgments about policies and candidates,” said Lee H. Hamilton, Director of The Center on Congress at Indiana University.  “Today, far too many Americans do not understand their civic responsibilities, or even the basic facts about our system of government. It is vital that we strengthen civic knowledge and skills; if we do not, the entire American democratic enterprise is at risk. This report sounds the alarm that we must put a premium on civic education if we expect our citizens to be engaged participants in their own governance.”

The full report, “Guardian of Democracy: The Civic Mission of Schools will be available at

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“Guardian of Democracy: The Civic Mission of Schools” Report will be released on Thursday September 15th at the Civic Innovators Forum of the annual National Conference on Citizenship, to be held at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia. The report will be publicly released by Justice Sandra Day O’Connor (Co-Chair of the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools) Friday September 16th also at the National Constitution Center.

The Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools is a coalition of over forty partner organizations working to improve civic education in America’s schools.  The Campaign’s goal is to increase and improve civic learning in grades K-12 by working for policies that implement the recommendations of the Civic Mission of Schools report.  This includes efforts to bring about changes in national, state, and local education policy. For more information, visit:


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 education reform
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