Civic Education Systems Map Suggests Schools and Government Must Prioritize Subject

by Shawn P. Healy, PhD, Democracy Program Director

It is no secret to readers of the Illinois Civics blog that we believe sustained, school-wide commitments to civic learning will lead to the long-term resuscitation of the state’s civic health. The McCormick Foundation and Illinois Civics team are also active in the national movement to strengthen the field of civic learning through support for, and membership in, the CivXNow Coalition led by iCivics. The CivXNow Coalition prioritizes stronger state policies incentivizing school-based civic learning, expanded research and measurement of civic learning outcomes, and refined communication strategies to better make the case for the civic mission of schools.

As part of this effort, the Coalition fielded a two-part survey last year to determine why civic learning is so marginalized in schools, and what can be done to insure its prominence for posterity. More than 7,000 individuals participated, and Tufts University researchers produced a “Civic Education System Map” revealing the findings. The map identifies fourteen nodes representing interventions where there is broad agreement that these actions will improve the state of school-based civic learning (see below, and please click on the map and explore the nodes and relationships to one another that I explore in brief below).

Perhaps the ultimate goals of civic learning are represented by three of the nodes: youth are knowledgeable, youth are civically engaged, and civic life is healthy. Ten of the remaining eleven provide evidence of how we might go about achieving them. Multiple factors lead to improved youth civic knowledge, most prominently schools and government prioritizing civics, teachers’ capacity with civics instruction, and structured engagement with current and controversial issues (see the size and direction of the arrows).

Youth civic engagement is also a byproduct of schools valuing the subject, combined with schools’ overall quality. As is true of the knowledge side of the equation, the resource-starved civics field would benefit from increased funding to spur youth engagement.

A healthier civic life in the context of civic learning comes from greater government support. Given these commonalities, what can be done to strengthen schools and governmental support for civics? Government can ensure that schools teach civics in innovative ways inclusive of current and controversial issues through favorable policies and embedding it within accountability systems.

Societal support for civic learning is also key to schools prioritizing the subject and unlocking funding from government, philanthropy, and the private sector. A major driver of greater public support for civics is the way it is taught. Moving beyond lecture-based classrooms, we must engage students in discussions of current and controversial issues, service learning and other forms of action civics, and ensure that students’ diverse identifies are represented within curricular content.

These findings should give Illinois civics educators and champions a vote of confidence as daily efforts in classrooms, schools, and districts are fueling a positive feedback loop that leads to positive student outcomes and a stronger democracy statewide. However, our work is by no means complete.
  • We must drive civics instruction down to the earlier grades where it is most marginalized and explore opportunities to teach civics across the K-12 curriculum.
  • Teachers in all corners of the state need ongoing access to high-quality professional development and materials, and civic learning content and pedagogies should be embedded within pre-service programs.
  • And the state’s philanthropic and business communities must provide schools, districts, and nonprofit organizations with the supplemental resources necessary to scale and sustain effective civic learning practices.

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