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Commentary By Brandon McCoy

America Needs to Rediscover Civics in Education

Economics, Education Pre K-12

civics-education-disappearingStudents will learn what educators value. And if recent scores on national exams for history, geography, and civics are any indication, American educators are undervaluing the knowledge that young people will need to protect our political and civil institutions as adults. 

The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) recently released its 2018 assessment results for eighth-grade students in civics, US history, and geography. The results are not encouraging: compared to scores from 2014, average scores on the geography and history exams in 2018 saw a statistically significant drop of three and four points, respectively. Average scores on the civics exam declined by one point. The average score on the NAEP history exam is at its lowest point since 2006, and the average score for geography is at its lowest point since the subject became a main segment of the assessment.1  

In addition to a decline in scores, the new NAEP scores also reveal a lack of proficiency in all three subjects. Roughly a quarter of all US students who took the test scored well enough to be labelled “proficient” or better in civics or geography. In history, only 15% scored at proficiency or better.

Outcomes on individual exam questions are even more alarming. A mere 10% of test takers gave appropriate responses for why the South lost the Civil War. Only 26% of eighth graders were able to correctly identify the general locations of major world cities like Los Angeles and Tokyo. Only 26% of test takers appropriately understood the role of citizens in a presidential election. Educators need to think hard about how to turn these poor performances around.

They should look first at what is being taught in the classroom, and by whom. Across all schools, students who had a teacher whose primary role was teaching civics did six points better on average than those who didn’t—a significant difference. Those who had a teacher who primarily taught history performed on average four points better—also significant. For civics, this issue is particularly widespread, as only 22% of all students had a designated civics teacher. 

To become strong and productive members of society, students need a strong grasp of our country’s history, a deep understanding of our country’s system of government, and broader knowledge of the issues impacting the world. If educators wish to see a rise in proficiency in subjects like civics, they must dedicate time to these subjects.

For example, 50% of Catholic school students reported having a teacher whose primary responsibility was to teach civics, while only 22% of public school students reported the same. Students in Catholic schools scored an average of 19 points higher on the civics exam than their public school counterparts. Though this comparison is undoubtedly clouded by the fact that Catholic schools can selectively admit students and charge tuition to families of means, it—at the very least—suggests that assigning higher priority to civics would yield greater proficiency among America’s public-school students.

Regardless of whether they work in private or public schools, if educators want students to become better citizens and more knowledgeable about our history, then they should refocus the curriculum to that end.

Brandon McCoy is the project manager for the education policy team at the Manhattan Institute. Follow him on Twitter here. 

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  • 1. This graph excludes scores from 1994. NAEP did administer exams in geography and US history in 1994, but it did not permit accommodations. Consequently, results from the 1994 geography and history exams cannot be interpreted as contiguous with other examinations.

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