Research & Commentary: Civic Education

Published January 31, 2012

Often lost in the attention rightly paid to students’ poor achievement in math and reading is that civic knowledge and participation have been sliding for decades in the United States. That undermines representative government.

Some political activists advocate using public schools as a mechanism to make students political activists for various favored adult causes. This is controversial because it uses taxpayer dollars to support a political party or partisan ideology. The U.S. Department of Education has slowly moved in this direction under the Obama administration, developing curriculum and guidelines for what Education Secretary Arne Duncan calls “action civics.”

Others favor increasing mandates on public schools to implement civics curricula approved by boards and committees subject to special-interest influence. School reform advocates, however, note public schools are already trapped in a complex, frustrating web of regulations that has contributed to the current decline in civic knowledge and engagement.

A growing body of research has found private and charter schools do particularly well at educating students about American government and at graduating citizens who vote and volunteer in higher proportions than traditional public school graduates. This is true despite many critics charging private schools detract from the nation’s civic culture by allowing students an alternative to government schools. This research suggests the most effective civics education involves airing and comparing different philosophies, imparting basic knowledge about U.S. government and history, and encouraging voluntary participation in public life.

The following documents offer more information about civic education in the United States.


The Peril of the Republic: The Decline of Civic Education
Civic education in the United States has degenerated in recent decades, and many students and the general population demonstrate a poor understanding of American history, government, and Western Civilization, writes John Hendrickson of the Public Interest Institute. Without a clear understanding of American history, we will not be able to solve the nation’s current or future policy problems, he argues.

Enlightened Citizenship: How Civic Knowledge Trumps a College Degree in Promoting Active Civic Engagement
This fifth report of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute’s National Civic Literacy Board documents the results of its annual exam of 2,508 randomly selected U.S. adults on their civic knowledge and participation. Its major findings in 2011: A college degree fails to improve civic engagement beyond voting; greater civic knowledge promotes civic engagement more than a college degree; and civic self-education increases civic engagement, whereas playing video games detracts from it. The report concludes studying U.S. history and institutions is the best method for sustaining and encouraging responsible citizenship.

Civic Education in Traditional Public, Charter, and Private Schools: Moving From Comparison to Explanation
A growing number of studies have demonstrated private schools and many charters provide a much better civic education than public schools, notes David Campbell of the University of Notre Dame. This contradicts conventional wisdom that public schools are necessary to inculcate citizenship. Even so, he says, the most important question is not who does it better, but what makes for a successful civic education.

How to Enrich Civic Education and Sustain Democracy
Schools can and should encourage a strong civic education, writes James Youniss of the Catholic University of America, and they can do so without indoctrinating children. He suggests three methods: informed, civil discussion and debate; student government with input into school management; and encouragement of volunteering. Each approach is supported by research demonstrating its ability to help form thoughtful, engaged citizens.

Strengthening the Civic Mission of the Schoolhouse
By characterizing education primarily as the path to personal and professional advancement, reformers have redefined education as a private good, divorcing schooling from its historic role of instructing young people for citizenship, write Robin Lake and Cheryl Miller in a report for the American Enterprise Institute. Charter schools have a potentially powerful role to play as trendsetters for civic learning and can remind educators and policymakers of the many purposes of the schoolhouse.

High Schools, Civics, and Citizenship: What Social Studies Teachers Think and Do
Teachers may be setting too low a bar for what they expect students to know about American history and government, conclude Steve Farkas and Ann Duffett in a national, random-sample survey of high school social studies teachers. Social studies teachers are also largely in step with public attitudes about the U.S. and its government, but they report great amounts of frustration with the restricted curriculum they are allowed to offer and its lack of emphasis within schools.

The Core of Civic Virtue
Vocational skills are not enough for young people—they also need to develop the character that makes for a successful life, writes William Damon for the Hoover Digest. Preparing young people for responsible citizenship in a free society is a crucial obligation for U.S. adults and is currently largely neglected. “Unless we rectify this failure by placing a higher priority on educating young Americans for lives of moral and civic virtue,” Damon writes, “the nation will move away from liberty and toward despotism—and this movement will be both inevitable and astonishingly quick, perhaps within the space of a generation.”

Should Schools Turn Children into Activists? And Should Uncle Sam Help?
Writing in Education Next, Chester Finn Jr. argues civic education involves a great danger: moving beyond informing children of basic concepts about American government and instilling patriotism into making children political activists. The U.S. Department of Education has recently begun pushing in this very direction, Finn notes, with a suspicious interest in “action civics.”


Nothing in this Research & Commentary is intended to influence the passage of legislation, and it does not necessarily represent the views of The Heartland Institute. For further information on this and other topics, visit the School Reform News Web site at, The Heartland Institute’s Web site at, and PolicyBot, Heartland’s free online research database, at

If you have any questions about this issue or The Heartland Institute, contact Heartland education policy research fellow Joy Pullmann, at 312/377-4000 or [email protected].