When only a quarter of Americans can name all three branches of government, it’s reasonable to question the validity of civics education across the country. But take heart: A new study shows civics and government courses can produce real increases in democratic participation. Schools, parents and public servants should capitalize on this commonsense revelation and provide meaningful experiences for teenagers to learn the value of political processes.
Statistics detailing Americans’ knowledge about their government are difficult to digest for some. Three out of 10 people can’t name any of the three branches of government, according to a 2016 study by the Annenburg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. Another question found 40 percent of Americans believe Congress could forbid the news media from “reporting on any issue of national security without first getting government approval,” despite the First Amendment guarantee to freedom of the press.
Schoolhouse Rock, it appears, hasn’t given the country much beyond a few catchy tunes.
But an April 19 report suggests it’s not time to give up on civics education. Mathematica Policy Research studied a public charter school network known as Democracy Prep and found its schools “increase voter registration rates of its students by about 16 percentage points and increase the voting rates of its students by about 12 percentage points.”
Those are significant numbers when democracy is at stake. In a neighborhood caucus meeting of, say, 100 people — a common showing — a dozen more voters could very well alter the outcome of the night.
As the name suggests, however, Democracy Prep isn’t an average public school. It employs an “explicit focus on preparing scholars to become active citizens and leaders in our democracy.” Its curriculum starts with knowledge-based instruction about the functions of government and then quickly moves to applying concrete democratic skills. The school expects its students to lobby, volunteer for a campaign and give oral testimony in front of a public body, among other requirements. The result is an underage student body with more practice in civic participation than many adults.
Such training better prepares a young generation for a lifetime of civic service than simply reading from a textbook. This is an approach more schools should adopt.
In Utah, United States government and citizenship is a required course for high school graduation, and its updated standards, set to take effect this fall, are impressive. Under the “U.S. and our Relationship to the World” strand, for example, students will “propose and defend budget priorities either at the local, state, tribal, or federal level; and share their findings with appropriate stakeholders.”
That’s a lofty expectation, but Utah’s curriculum is unlikely to reproduce Democracy Prep’s results so long as the course is confined to a single semester.17 comments on this story
To achieve progress, schools will presumably need multiple civics classes spanning multiple years. For the short-term, however, parents, Scout leaders, after-school programs and the like ought first to educate themselves about democratic institutions and then frequently involve youths in political happenings. Teaching through example and practice will supplement what schools lack.
The right and responsibility to shape a democratic republic is too precious to neglect. Abdicating that power through ignorance or apathy places the future of the country in the hands of a few, a fate incongruent with the honored ideal of “government of the people, by the people, for the people.”