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Many educators probably weren’t surprised by today’s announcement of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) test results for civics and history. The scores tell an all-too-familiar story.

In past years, the scores for civics have been flat, which is hardly encouraging. Add learning loss stemming from the pandemic, and scores this year actually went down: Only 22 percent of eighth graders demonstrated proficiency in the topic, compared with 24 percent the last time the subject was tested in 2018.

Other findings from the national exam, known as the Nation’s ‘Report Card,’ show that dedicated resources for teaching civics results in better student performance, but that those resources are sorely lacking: 

  • Only 49 percent of students who took the NAEP test said they have a class that is mainly focused on civics or U.S. government, and only 29 percent said they had a teacher whose primary responsibility is teaching civics.
  • Eighth graders who learned about civics in a designated class outperformed those where it was embedded in another class (157 to 153 average scale score), while those with no civics instruction scored just 143.

As a country, we have not invested enough in teaching the very fundamental knowledge, skills and dispositions young people need to be informed and engaged participants in our bold experiment in self-government. Yet for the first time since the NAEP began testing students on civics some 35 years ago, the country has a clear path forward to improving civics and history education.

The Roadmap to Educating for American Democracy — released in spring 2021 by our group, iCivics, in partnership with Arizona State, Harvard and Tufts universities — provides states and school districts guidance for creating learning plans for civics and history that meet their own communities’ needs. Developed with input from more than 300 experts from across the viewpoint spectrum, the roadmap promotes a student-centric model of teaching that prioritizes inquiry and project-based learning. It encourages students to answer even the most challenging questions about our country’s past and present by engaging with primary sources to learn a more complete history of the United States and its constitutional democracy from multiple perspectives.

The roadmap is now being put into practice in school districts across the country. And what we’re seeing in these classrooms is far more heartening than the NAEP results:

  • In Santa Fe, New Mexico, district officials say students in classrooms participating in an iCivics pilot of a curriculum aligned with the roadmap are showing much deeper knowledge of the subject. This depth of learning is demonstrated through projects in which students develop a thesis and support their arguments with evidence, using self-created documentaries, curated exhibits of resources, art and op-eds to communicate their findings.
  • In Oklahoma City Public Schools, teachers say they are able to tackle topics such as Manifest Destiny by presenting information to students and having students drive discussion in a way that lets them see a complicated philosophy from different perspectives.

Far from telling students what to think, this kind of inquiry-based learning encourages students to develop independent thinking skills, engage more deeply in their learning together with their peers, and arrive at their own conclusions.

As the nation nears its 250th birthday, the release of the NAEP scores should serve as a clarion call to commit to providing each and every student in our country with the kind of high-quality civic education necessary for informed, effective and lifelong civic engagement.

This will not be easy, but recent developments hint at the possibility for real change.

At the end of 2022, Congress grew the federal allocation for civic education from $7.75 million to $23 million. The Biden administration’s current proposed budget would triple that investment, increasing the federal spend on civic education from less than 5 cents per student annually in fiscal year 2022 to almost $1.50 in only a few short years. The advancement of STEM fields in recent decades has shown us the kind of progress that can happen as a result of sustained investment.

Only 22 percent of eighth graders demonstrated proficiency in the topic, compared with 24 percent the last time the subject was tested in 2018.

Likewise, state legislatures are starting to turn the tide. In the last biennium, 16 states adopted 17 bipartisan policies advancing civic education. The 2023 spring legislative session shows continued promise, with more than 65 bills to advance civic education filed in 24 states.

Parents and voters across the political spectrum support more money for civic education. We should heed their calls and ensure funding is in place to implement high-quality civic instruction. We must make civic education a centerpiece of K–12 education in the United States, giving our next generations the tools to be successful as they inherit this country’s constitutional democracy.

Louise Dubé is the executive director of iCivics, the country’s leading civic education nonprofit, which was founded by retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. Emma Humphries is iCivics’ chief education officer.

This story about civic education was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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