Category Archives: advocating civic education

NAEP civic scores 2018 adjusted by demographics

civics test scores by state

The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) periodically measures US students’ knowledge of civics with an instrument that looks like a test, although it has no stakes for the students or teachers. I have served on the design committee for that instrument for many years. I don’t love the framework, which is dominated by the formal structure of the federal government. However, the NAEP is a carefully constructed assessment with a large, representative sample, so the data are certainly worth using.

Because states adopt their own standards, course requirements, and other policies for civics, we would like to understand which state policies are most effective. In a recent paper, Steven Michael Carlo presents mean NAEP civics scores for each state for 2014-18. Importantly, he adjusts these scores for other factors that might affect the results, namely: individual students’ race/ethnicity and gender, whether their school is public or private, the party of the state’s governor and legislature, the state’s adult and student demographics, state per-pupil expenditures on k-12 schools, and the state’s percentage of private school students.*

Of course, one could add more variables of interest, including various state policies. However, Carlo has presented a plausible answer to the question: Which states do better at civics?

I thought it might be useful to display two columns of data from Carlo’s paper in the form of maps, because a visual display can help to suggest hypotheses. At a minimum, states like Louisiana, New Mexico, Mississippi, and Vermont that have low adjusted scores should investigate possible causes. States like Virginia, West Virginia, Washington and Florida that have high scores may provide models.

First, here are the adjusted NAEP civics scores from the most recent year (2018).

And here are changes in those scores from 2014-18.

Another research step would be to add state civics policies (such as course and test requirements) to the model.

*Carlo, Steven Michael. (2024). The State of State Civics Scores: An Application of Multilevel Regression with Post-Stratification using NAEP Test Scores. (EdWorkingPaper: 24-954). Retrieved from Annenberg Institute at Brown University: See also: the new NAEP civics results; some surprising results from the 2010 NAEP Civics assessment; CIRCLE’s release on today’s Civics results etc.

Bar chart: Black and Latino Youth Are Less Likely to Take High School Civics Courses and to Consider them Impactful Data at

Unequal opportunities for voice in high school civics classes

In CIRCLE’s 2024 national survey of youth, about 40 percent of the 18-24-year-old Americans who were polled recalled having “experiences in class, in student groups, or with school leaders where they felt their voice and opinion mattered” while they were high school students. “White (41%) and Latino youth (40%) were more likely to say they remembered such student voice experiences compared to Black and Asian youth (both 34%).”

White youth were also more likely to recall taking a course labeled “civics,” “American government,” or just “government” in high school (77% of Whites versus 64% of Blacks). After controlling for race/ethnicity, gender, college experience and age, CIRCLE finds strong positive relationships between experiencing voice in high school and planning to vote in the 2024 election. Of those who had positive experiences of voice, 81% say they are “extremely likely to vote,” as compared to 44% of those who did not.

This relationship is probably not entirely causal, with experiences of voice completely explaining the higher intentions to vote. To some extent, people who want to vote now may have sought out high school experiences or may remember those experiences when they are surveyed in the present. Some communities may both support voice in schools and encourage voting later on. Nevertheless, the correlations are stark and apply across demographic groups, which suggests that voice has a substantial impact.

We need two aspects of policy: ensure that every student takes courses on civics, government, and history, and make sure that meaningful discussion of current issues is part of those curricula.

Voting is an indicator here, not necessarily the goal. We teach civics to prepare and enourage young people to engage in many ways, not only at the ballot box. Still, voting is a clear measure of engagement.

See Kelly Siegel-Stechler, Naraya Price, Alberto Medina (with Abby Kiesa, Noorya Hayat, and Sara Suzuki), “Youth Who Develop their Voice in High School Are More Likely to Vote,” March 12, 2024

the humanities as civic education

Heads bent over copies of the same text, young people discuss how the author presents matters of high moral import. Their teacher is a facilitator who asks thoughtful questions and demonstrates reading with attention and care.

This is how I was introduced to college, through the Directed Studies “great books” program at Yale in the 1980s. Similar methods persist and are being revived at institutions like Stanford, which has recently enacted a Civic, Liberal, and Global Education requirement.

The approach dates back at least to 14th-century Italy, when Cicero’s phrase studia humanitatis became the name for a curriculum and pedagogy designed mainly for future political leaders. We might render his phrase (from Pro Archia 2:3) as the “studies appropriate for making people humane or urbane.” Gradually, a humanista became the word for a tutor–often a layman–who helped gentlemen read literature, history, and moral philosophy in order to become eloquent and virtuous. This is the origin of the “humanities,” a word that has been closely associated with notions of civic leadership and civic virtue.

I appreciate this humanistic style of civic education and would support using it more widely. By the way, there is no good reason to restrict the assigned texts to a portion of the world labeled “The West” or to label the curriculum “Western Civilization” (using a phrase that’s not very old). Texts can come from anywhere, although it makes sense to choose traditions or dialogues that extend across time. For example: from the Bhagavad Gita and the Gospels to Thoreau, Tolstoy and Gandhi. Or from the Republic to al-Farabi to Utopia to Rousseau to the Communist Manifesto to the Ayatollah Khomeini.

However, this version of humanistic civic education conflicts with several other plausible educational theories.

One rival idea is that the humanities are cumulative research programs that benefit from specialization. On this account, we don’t want a person who wrote a thesis about Plath to teach Plato. Plato should be taught by a scholar who knows Greek, the original context, and the recent literature and its interpretive problems. Reading texts from across time and space is amateurish. It extracts the texts from their contexts and teaches students that they are free to form opinions without doing much homework.

Another rival idea assumes that citizenship is really about addressing current social problems. In that case, the most important intellectual skill is understanding and applying relevant empirical information. Instead of reading Plato or Plath, students should create literature reviews of recent social science and learn how to assess abstracts, methodology sections, and results critically. Quantitative skills become more important; interpreting texts, less so.

A third idea is that people should prepare for responsible civic engagement by learning a set of concepts. We can debate the list, but it might include separation of powers, opportunity costs, social stratification, and habeas corpus, among (many) others. Maybe students won’t remember long lectures or textbook assignments about these topics, in which case a more engaging pedagogy would be more effective. But the point is to transfer such concepts to the learners.

A fourth idea is that civic learning must be deeply experiential because it is primarily about interpersonal relationships, practical knowledge, and an appreciation of one’s specific communities. It cannot come primarily from books. Alexis de Tocqueville and John Dewey are famous proponents of the idea that we should learn the arts of citizenship from civic engagement outside the classroom.

It’s tempting to endorse all five of these ideas, but they trade off, especially given limited time and resources.

See also: core curricula without the concept of the West; “The world wants the humanities”; the public purposes of the humanities (a brief history)–from 2013;

Civic Education in a Time of Democratic Crisis

I enjoyed an online conversation yesterday with David Campbell from Notre Dame, Paul Carrese from Arizona State University, Linda Darling-Hammond from the Learning Policy Institute, Kent McGuire of the Hewlett Foundation, and Na’ilah Suad Nasir from the Spencer Foundation. We discussed research collected in the current volume of The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, on the topic of “Civic Education in a Time of Democratic Crisis.” Several articles in that volume feature recent insights from the National Academy of Education’s Educating for Civic Reasoning and Discourse report and the Educating for American Democracy Roadmap.

The conversation addressed such questions as these: What new understanding of civic education is presented in the ANNALS volume, and how is this vision relevant to our current political environment? What are some recent shifts in civics standards and requirements? What can we learn from the learning sciences about pedagogies for civics? What does all this mean for teacher education?

I also thought that members of the audience pushed us to consider some valuable questions, such as whether it’s right to use “crisis” language to describe democracy or civic education in our schools (or both).

introduction to public policy for undergrads

This semester, I’ll be teaching an introductory course on public policy for Tufts undergraduates. I want them to learn some of the concepts and vocabulary that are prevalent in graduate schools of public policy, government agencies, and think tanks. I’m not trying to sell them on these concepts, a few of which I personally happen to dislike. We’ll learn to use them and assess them critically.

I also want to develop the civic skill of making policy choices under conditions of uncertainty, when there is a legitimate controversy about what is best. I recognize that some students may not want to make such decisions or be complicit in the institutions that make them. For example, on the first day of class, when we discuss what the UK government should have done about national exams during COVID, students may say that they wouldn’t participate in such decisions because they wouldn’t serve in the UK Department of Education or preside over a system of high-stakes national exams. I welcome such existential reflections, but I think that examining specific policy choices can actually clarify the roles that we feel comfortable playing. (Also, people who exercise power are not the only ones who can be ethically negligent; so can people who shun power.)

Every Monday, we will discuss a published case: a true story about a decision that confronted real policymakers. I’ve taken most of these cases from the open repositories of Harvard’s Kennedy School and Syracuse’s Maxwell School, with a few from Justice in Schools, the Pluralism Project, and Johns Hopkins’ SNF Agora Institute. I like cases that pose genuine dilemmas, with conflicts among legitimate values and uncertainty about outcomes.

Every Wednesday, we will add a new concept that can enrich our understanding of such cases, such as cost/benefit analysis, equity and equality, rights, rule of law, exit/voice, public engagement in policy, policy feedback-loops, social capital, and more.

Each student will write several research papers about the same chosen topic and then use that research to write a short case that they will present for discussion at the end of the semester. Asking students to write cases is a pedagogy that I have described and recommended before.

See also: calling youth to government service; assigning students to write cases; judgment in a world of power and institutions: outline of a view; social education as learning to improve models; making our models explicit; etc.