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Why Civic Education Is Important and What Parents Should Do About It

So, how well-educated are your kids in civics?  Has your children’s school provided a rigorous civic education?  

Many parents would be unsure how to even answer these questions.  Let’s back up and answer this question first: What is civics?

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Teaching American Civics to Teens and tweens
American flags photo by Matt Briney on Unsplash

What is Civics?

Civics is the study of the rights and duties of citizens in a society, as well as an understanding of how the government was formed and how it functions.

For Americans specifically, a good civics education includes learning what the Constitution says.  We need to learn about the founders who wrote it and why they wrote it the way they did.  David Randall, Director of Research at the National Association of Scholars says that a good civics curriculum:

“teaches the moral beliefs of the American Founders, so…children can learn why and for what purposes the Founders created our government. The founders believed in limited government, because they saw that individuals were fallible. They believed in free government, because they reasoned that people were best suited to choose their own happiness.”

Excerpt from Parents Should Guide Their Children’s Civic Education, RealClear Public Affairs, April 6, 2022

American children also need to learn that freedom is the basis of what America is.  They need to know where the Founders’ ideas about freedom came from and how the early Americans achieved that freedom.

American children need to be taught why our country is worthy of their love.  

They need to be taught the customs that define and unite us.  I think this is even more true for American children than for children in other countries because of the nature of our country.  Since we are a nation of immigrants, we have citizens who come from all over the world, and there are new arrivals every year.  Those children and their parents come with different experiences, and it’s important that they learn what America is all about.  Maybe you, reader, are an immigrant from another country!  If so, welcome!  And please use the resources I provide below to learn more about your new country.

Why Is Civic Education Important?

Citizens need to be educated in order to be responsible.  American citizens are failing at their duties.  There is low voter turnout. Freedom of speech is threatened.

Our beautifully designed three branches of government with its checks and balances has been distorted.  Our congress doesn’t carefully deliberate to make laws anymore.  Instead, they pass giant bills that no one has read, and for many years now the president (who is head of the executive branch, not the legislative branch) announces executive orders that become law.  And many Americans are too ignorant to even realize that this isn’t how the government is designed to work.

Every little thing our elected officials do has turned political.  They seem more concerned about how their actions will be reacted to on social media than whether they are being ethical and doing the right thing.  Many of them seem to think that their job is all about getting the perfect sound bite in order to get reelected.  And again, many Americans don’t seem to even understand that this isn’t how it’s supposed to be.  Or they can’t even be bothered to look up from their phones to notice that it’s happening.

American Schools are Failing to Teach Civics

Civics education has become a lower priority over the years.  Teaching civics used to be one of the main purposes of American public education. It has been emphasized less and less over the years.

In 2018, the Institute for Citizens and Scholars found that only 36% of Americans could pass the citizenship test.  When the results were filtered for age, it was found that for people under the age of 45, only 19% passed.  81% FAILED WITH A SCORE OF 59% or LOWER.  Those over the age of 65 had a 74% passing rate.  This makes it very clear that the quality of civics education has sharply decreased.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress, also known as the Nation’s Report Card, showed that 23% of 8th graders were proficient in civics and government, and 18% were proficient in history.

Not only that, but many schools have replaced civics and history with misinformation.  As Timothy Goeglein writes in his book Toward a More Perfect Union: The Moral and Cultural Case for Teaching the Great American Story:

“Civic education and American history have either not been taught or have been deliberately mistaught throughout our nation’s …education system…America [consequently] is in the grip of a cultural revolution [whose]…”shock troops” are now toppling statues of our nation’s founders, removing monuments to presidents, renaming schools, censoring speech, and redrafting curricula.” (Goeglein 2, 12-13)

Commenting upon this, David Randall writes that those “who have seized control of teaching America’s history and civics in the schools have used that power to disaffect several generations of young Americans from their country – to hate the caricature they have been taught as reality.” What We Should Teach the Children, National Association of Scholars, Fall 2023

A recent Gallup poll shows us that patriotism in America is waning, especially among the young.

Another issue is that traditional civics learning has been replaced in many schools by “Action Civics,” a new civics teaching method that encourages political activism without teaching the students the basics of how our government was formed or what their role is as citizens in a self-governing republic.

Katherine Cornell Gorka, a research fellow for The Heritage Foundation, writes:

“The problem is that without a solid understanding of why the Founders were so deliberate in designing our self-governing republic, with its separation of powers to prevent any one branch from becoming tyrannical, or establishing the rule of law so that we would not be subject to the whims of any one person, we risk falling into the same traps of other, less just regimes.  Indeed it is no accident that today’s protests are looking more like the French Revolution, with its guillotines and beheadings, than the American Revolution, with its debates and deliberations.”

Action Civics is Teaching Our Kids to Protest, The Heritage Foundation, November 2, 2020
How parents can make sure their kids learn civics

What Parents Can Do For Civic Education

Luckily, you are an informed parent who realizes there is a problem.  You have several choices of what you can do. 

  • Find out what they are being taught in school
  • Educate yourself
  • Teach your own kids

I know you are a busy parent and you don’t need to throw yourself into saving our society if you aren’t up for it right now.  I’m just laying out some choices for you.  The most important thing for you as a parent is to help your own kids.  You can skip to that section, or read on.

What are your kids being taught about civics in school?

Finding out what your kids are being taught in school might be the most challenging task of the three I laid out for you.  I would start by simply asking your teen or tween.  What have they been learning in history/social studies?  What do they discuss in class?  If your tween will talk to you, great!  

Next, look at the materials that have been sent home.  If your child’s class has a website, look at that and see what information is there about what they are studying.  If your tween has a textbook, super! Look at it and see what it covers.  Nowadays it seems less and less common for kids to have a textbook that they bring home.  And of course, you don’t know whether the teacher is having the kids read every section.

Your second step would be to ask the teachers.  Email your teen or tween’s social studies or history teacher and ask what they are teaching in US History and Civics.  Ask which curriculum they follow, what their textbooks are called, what resources they use.

You could also call the school district and ask the same questions.  Perhaps start by looking at the school district’s website and finding out if they have a curriculum specialist or director of curriculum or something like that.  

I looked at our local school district, and by going to the “students and parents” area I then found a section called “curriculum information.”  That section had links to the curriculum standards for our state as well as a part about which standards our district emphasizes the most.  Although once I got there, I was told I needed permission to access it.

So here is your civics lesson number one: We Americans have a government that is of, by, and for the people.  Public schools are government-run schools.  They are providing a service to the people.  They are funded by our tax dollars.  They should be 100% accountable to all citizens – both the parents of the school as well as local citizens who are counting on the schools to educate our citizenry.  It is absolutely reasonable to expect them to have 100% transparency about what they teach and what goes on in the schools.

This is why I said that finding out what your school teaches is the most challenging part of this issue.  You can search the internet for your state’s standards, but that does not ensure that your school is teaching to the standards or that they are not doing a biased version of it.  Plus the state standards can be very long and cumbersome to read and understand.

If you are up for it, attend the school board meetings.  Join the PTA.  Read all the emails your school district sends.  Do your best to get the complete picture.

Read these articles to get an understanding of what you are looking for:

Parents Should Guide Their Children’s Civic Education, RealClear Public Affairs, April 6, 2022

Civics Education: Necessary Principles and Curriculum Sketch, Civics Alliance, 2022

Educate Yourself About Civics

How thorough is your knowledge of civics?  Even if you have a college degree, chances are that you may not have a solid grasp of civics and American history.  I have to say for myself, as a college-educated bright person, I did not have a good civics education.  I have taught myself a lot over the past few years, and you should consider whether you should, too.

If you want to try a practice test that people take for the citizenship exam, here’s the link to an online test.  

It might be fun (and informative) to print out a list of civics questions to discuss with your family – find out how much everyone knows, both kids and adults.  Link to questions   Link to answer key

I educated myself by educating my high school son. That was a lot of fun and is the method I’d recommend! I will go into further detail below. However, if you would like to just start by educating yourself, here are some resources I have found. I have NOT read most of these books, but I did read the synopsis and reviews and they look like they are good choices. If you have more suggestions, or you choose one of these and have an opinion, please leave a comment on this article!

Exploring the Constitution: A Study of America & Our Founding Documents By Brian Harris includes the text of our founding documents along with commentary and historical context to help the reader understand.

The Words We Live By: Your Annotated Guide to the Constitution by Linda R. Monk

A Patriot’s History of the United States by Larry Schweikart and Michael Allen – My son and I read a good chunk of this one. It is VERY LARGE. I think it is well done, but it is sometimes hard to follow. Very comprehensive. My son didn’t really care for it, but I thought it was good. It is written from a conservative limited-government perspective.

If you’d prefer to watch a video, try this free course from Hillsdale College Online: Constitution 101

Teaching Civics to Your Teens and Tweens

There are many resources available for teaching civics to your tweens and teens. I will do a follow-up article that will include a myriad of choices. For now, let me give you a few to get started.

My son and I completed The Good and the Beautiful’s US Constitution and Government curriculum. It is intended for grades 4-8, so it is perfect for tweens. However, we did the course as part of my son’s 12th-grade homeschool history and government class! It is not enough for a full high school course, but it’s so well laid out and clear, and it’s done like a story so it’s lots of fun to do together. And as I mentioned above, I myself learned a lot! I don’t feel like I was properly taught US history and government in school.

This curriculum is written from a Christian perspective. But I hope you keep in mind that America was founded with Judeo-Christian values, so having a good understanding of those values is helpful for understanding it. You don’t need to be a Christian to enjoy this course or to be an American.

This is definitely a course that doesn’t require that you are a homeschool family. It would be a fun activity for any family to undertake. They even offer a supplementary workbook for grades K-3 in case you have a little sibling who needs to be entertained while feeling included. You can see an incredibly comprehensive sample of the course by clicking here.

One thing I thought this curriculum handled very well was the topic of slavery and the Founding Fathers – in fact, that is the title of the fifth lesson. A lot of people in our culture assume that any patriotic American history curriculum is going to be “white-washed” and leave out the hard parts. That is absolutely not true! A well-done curriculum can tell the truth, love America, and cover the hard stuff all at the same time.

We also used The Daily Bellringer’s videos on YouTube. This is such a helpful resource that would be great for older elementary school through adults. He does 5-minute lessons on many US History and government topics. Here is an example:

We used the Daily Bellringer by watching his playlists in order. You can start with “Road to Revolution” and follow it with “US Constitution” if you are wanting to focus on the development of the American government, but if you want to really learn American history, maybe you should start with “Early English Colonies.” Just pick a video to start with, watch it together, and discuss!

If you want something more in-depth than 5-minute videos, take a look at Hillsdale College’s 1776 curriculum. It covers K-12 American History and Civics and it’s entirely free!

Another good choice for younger students is Uncle Sam and You by Ray Notgrass. It’s an entire year-long civics curriculum for grades 5-8. I bought it for my daughter when I homeschooled her in 8th grade. It’s a textbook and workbook-based course, so it is a good choice for families that want to have a screen-free experience. It is also mostly independent work, so it’s easy for busy parents. This curriculum comes from a Protestant Christian perspective. It is fairly religious and includes activities that connect the content to the Bible. As a more secular family, we found that to be quite different than we were used to, but interesting and it wasn’t a problem for us. Click here to see a detailed look at what is included.

If you like this format, please also consider the course that is suggested to precede Uncle Sam and You, which is entitled America the Beautiful and focuses on American history. Click here to see a detailed look at what is included in America the Beautiful.

Books That Teach Civics and Early US History to Tweens & Teens

If you are looking for books to supplement your tween or teen’s civics learning, here are some choices:

The Side-By-Side Declaration of Independence by David Miles has this founding document’s original text side-by-side with a more easy-to-read version. There are bright illustrations and fun facts included along with historical context to help readers understand. The publisher says it’s for ages 8-12, but the reviewers, including librarians, think that it would be appropriate for high schoolers as well. You can also get a supplemental workbook.

The Interactive Constitution, also by David Miles, looks like such a fun book! It teaches all about the Constitution and how our government works using lift-the-flap style fun. It has won several awards and has excellent reviews. The publisher says it’s for ages 8-12, but if you have a playful teen I bet they’d like it, too. Heck, I’d like it! There is also a supplemental workbook available.

We used the Joy Hakim History of US series throughout our studies. I would say these books are most suitable for 5th-9th grade, but they could also be a supplement for older or younger students, which is how we used it. Book 3 is entitled The History of US: From Colonies to Country 1735-1791. I think that is the right one to start with for the purpose we are discussing today. Parts of the series do have a bit of a liberal bias, but they are engaging and well-written so I would definitely recommend it. Just make sure you are also using a purely factual source to go with it.

Wrapping Up

Did this article make you want to get involved in the struggle to revive civic education in America? If so, here are some organizations that you should consider:

Civics Alliance

Institute for Civics and Scholars

If you want to learn more, please click on the links to the articles I used for my research which are mentioned above. My research also included:

Davenport, David The Civic Education Crisis, Hoover Institution, April 5, 2019

I will be following this article up with more! Stay tuned! If you don’t follow me already, please sign up for my email list to keep informed of new content. And please share my article to get the word out!

More articles on this topic:

How to Talk About Presidential Election 2024 with Your Kids

You also might enjoy:

How to teach tweens and teens about Slavery, Abolition, and the Road to the Civil War

American civics for teens and tweens
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