In recent months, lawmakers and activists have become embroiled in a debate over critical race theory — the movement contending that our legal, political, and societal structures are inherently racist — and whether public school programs or curricula that reflect this thinking are appropriate. Eight states have passed laws to ban critical race theory, and nearly 20 more are considering legislation.
But the intense debate highlights a reality upon which all sides can likely agree: To prepare coming generations for their roles as citizens, American civic education needs fixing.
Basic educational outcomes make that clear. For example, only 56% of respondents to the 2021 Annenberg Civics Knowledge Survey could name all three branches of government. In 2018, only 24% of 8th graders scored “proficient” in civics on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), and only 15% achieved the same rating in American history.
On a deeper level, we need everyone to understand our fundamental principles — among them, the notion that all people are created equal, regardless of race or ancestry; that government derives its legitimate powers from the consent of the governed; and that we all have certain rights that no just government can violate. These include the right to due process of law, freedom of speech, assembly, and religion.
So how do we make sure young people grasp these tenets?
Passing top-down policy may feel like progress, but substantive changes can only happen in the classroom — and must be led by our nation’s teachers.
America’s middle and high school educators have a unique platform. Their instruction of American history can influence generations to come. In fact, throughout a typical career, a social studies teacher can reach more than 5,000 students.
Yet our teachers don’t have all the tools and support they need. In a December report, the Rand Corporation found that only 20% of public-school social studies teachers feel well equipped to teach civics. The teachers cited a lack of training, professional development opportunities, and instructional materials. Social studies educators are lagging behind their colleagues in other disciplines. A 2017 Brookings report found that they are historically among the least likely to engage in professional development in their field of study.
There are ways to rectify this situation. Private support of ongoing teacher education can have a particularly powerful impact.
Our three organizations launched the American Civics and History Initiative, a collaborative effort that provides thousands of teachers with learning opportunities they may have missed in college or graduate school. Designed solely for educators, these programs focus on the primary documents and debates that have shaped the history of the United States.
The pilot, launched in Florida last year, has already reached hundreds of educators statewide.
Public educational initiatives also play a crucial role. Florida recently announced the Civic Literacy Excellence Initiative, a $106 million program that will support and incentivize ongoing teacher training for Florida civics teachers in coming years.
Public and private efforts needn’t be limited to the Sunshine State. Our organizations are working with teachers around the country. Across the board, we’ve found that these educators want to deepen their knowledge in the subjects they teach. They only need the opportunities to do so.
Bottom line: If you want to help civics, help civics teachers.
Every democratic society is rife with disagreement. Better civic education is not going to change that — and it’s not supposed to. But a more widespread understanding of our founding principles, their origins and role in our history will provide the shared foundation from which we can disagree.
The debate over critical race theory highlights an obvious truth — what happens in our nation’s civics and history classrooms matters. If we want to have a real effect on students, and strengthen the enduring bonds we inherit from our founding, we need to support and equip passionate and dedicated teachers.
Thomas Kelly is director of civics outreach at the Jack Miller Center. David J. Bobb is president of the Bill of Rights Institute. Jeffrey Sikkenga is executive director of the Ashbrook Center.