Civic Education

Civic education (or civics education) is generally understood to mean the preparation of citizens or prospective citizens to become knowledgeable, competent, and responsible participants in their political society. Civic education in a democracy aims to prepare citizens to participate fruitfully in self-government. To some, civic education is equivalent to citizenship education, although the latter can be understood to refer specifically to the education of noncitizens to prepare for a naturalization examination.

In the United States, civic education usually refers to the learning and experiences that take place within the context of formal schooling. Whereas many institutions such as the media, government, the family, and civil society organizations contribute to a citizen's “informal” civic education, K–12 schools are uniquely positioned to foster civic learning. Of all of these institutions, the schools provide the most systematic introduction to the knowledge, skills, and attitudes that democratic citizens ideally possess. Students' common experiences in formal instruction and the so-called hidden (or unspoken) curriculum— the embedded structure of governance, norms, and behaviors that teachers as individuals and schools as institutions convey—provide a base of common experience and social context for civic learning. Extracurricular activities, for those students involved in them, also foster civic learning. This civic mission of the schools was recognized by the Founders and ultimately served as the rationale for establishing universal public education.


All societies seek to instill in succeeding generations a knowledge and appreciation of their political cultures and institutions as well as a sense of responsibility for the protection and advancement of the polity. This is true of both nondemocratic and democratic governments. From ancient times to the discovery of the New World, the onus on the few democratic polities to instill such attitudes was probably greater than on nondemocratic nations because their citizens possessed relatively greater liberty, power, and potential for individual choice. Self-government demands that citizens care enough to govern themselves, know enough to make wise judgments, and are skilled enough to act on those judgments. Civic education enables democratic citizens to govern themselves—collectively and individually as well as governmentally and privately.

In the ancient Athenian democracy and the Roman Republic the understanding of patriotism, civic responsibility, and service was articulated in greater depth than in other polities of their eras by such thinkers as Pericles, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero. The Roman Republic had a particularly profound influence on the American Founders. Roman citizens during the republic had a voice in the affairs of state. Furthermore, the republic lasted nearly 500 years, showing that republics could endure far longer than had Athenian democracy, though the Roman Republic eventually gave way to the Roman Empire. The republic provided the Founders the model of a society imbued with the idea of advancing the common good, which is a central feature of the concept of classical republicanism. In this model, moral education and civic virtue—wherein one places the interests of the public at large over the personal interests of oneself or other individuals—were expressly taught, and civic duty was considered a higher value than individual rights or freedoms.

From the beginning of the American experience in self-government, its political leaders borrowed ideas about democracy and citizenship from classical thinkers as well as seventeenth- and eighteenth-century political theorists. From Thomas Hobbes ( 1588–1679 ) they drew the idea of a social contract in which people ceded power to the state in exchange for security. John Locke argued that individuals are equal and possess the right to “life, liberty, and property” ; that government should be limited; that sovereignty resides in the people rather than a monarch; that government is based on the consent of the governed, and that as a result people have the right to withdraw their consent and reform the government. Other secular theorists who influenced the Founders were Montesquieu, David Hume, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau ( 1712–1778

The Founders, like earlier generations of colonial leaders, were acutely aware of the need for a population that not only possessed a strong sense of patriotism and civic virtue but that was literate and educated about the ideas and forms of self-government. As a result, at the time of the Revolution the American colonies had higher rates of literacy and newspaper readership than any other place on Earth. Although Americans were relatively well read, education was far from universal and it was not free. Most of the Founders were principally concerned with the inculcation of civic and moral virtues, and the predominant means of conveying these virtues was in the form of spelling books and readers that provided patriotic stories that conveyed moral instruction about the benefits of American principles. Authors of these overtly nationalistic popular readers included Noah Webster, whose first publications were in 1785, and later William McGuffey, who in 1836 started publishing primers ( which became known as McGuffey's Readers ).

Although many of the Founders, such as John Adams and Benjamin Rush, wrote about the need for education, the most prominent advocate of civic education was Thomas Jefferson ( 1743–1826 ). Jefferson was not inclined toward rote learning and he promoted the study of history and the establishment of a system of universal public education in order to properly educate democratic citizens. Seeing the people as the safest “guardians of their own liberty,” he thought they should study Greek, Roman, European, and American history to help them make wise political judgments—to “qualify them as judges of the actions and designs of men.”

The cause of universal public education in the United States was greatly advanced in the 1830s and 1840s by reformers like Horace Mann ( 1796–1859 ), who used, in part, the civic mission of the schools to justify the need for public education. His views on civic education were similar in many respects to those of present-day civic educators. He advocated, in his 1848 Report to the Massachusetts State Board of Education, a civic education that included the study of the US Constitution and of state constitutions, an understanding of the structure and powers of the branches of government, and the need to use democratic principles and processes in managing conflict. Unlike modern educators, though, he eschewed the discussion of controversial issues, saying “who shall moderate the fury of these conflicting elements … and who shall save the … interests of the children from being consumed?”

From the early twentieth century until the 1960s, civic education practice could be largely characterized as “traditional,” with rote classroom- and text-based instruction focusing on acquiring knowledge of the history and theory of American government. In opposition to this traditional paradigm, “progressive education,” whose foremost theorist was John Dewey ( 1859–1952 ), sought to provide a more “authentic” civic education. This approach attempted not only to teach students the principles and history of American democracy but also to build students' intellectual and participatory skills by engaging them in democratic practices connected to their community and the greater polity.

The ultimate aim of most contemporary civic educators is to cultivate civic virtue not by preaching but by providing students an education that will lead them to a reasoned commitment to democratic processes when making decisions and managing conflict. In this vision, students who have received a rich civic education will not only be disposed to participate in public life but will indeed be committed to doing so in a reflective, informed, and responsible manner consonant with American civic values and principles.


The content knowledge of civics is the first component of civic education, and that content draws on the perspectives of a variety of disciplines (e.g., history, political science, and jurisprudence). As framed in the National Standards for Civics and Government ( 1994 ), a project of the Center for Civic Education, students should be able to answer five key questions: (1) What are civic life, politics, and government? (2) What are the foundations of the American political system? (3) How does the government established by the Constitution embody the purposes, values, and principles of American democracy? (4) What is the relationship of the United States to other nations and to world affairs? (5) What are the roles of citizens in American democracy? In answering these questions, students learn to interpret the development of American political principles and values found in fundamental documents such as the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Gettysburg Address, and the “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” Students learn how these ideas have evolved over time and apply to their lives as citizens.

The third component is civic dispositions, or civic attitudes, which refer to the qualities of private and public character that contribute to the functioning of civic life. These include civility, respect for the rights of other individuals, respect for law, honesty and a search for truth, open-mindedness, critical-mindedness about others' and one's own positions, negotiation and compromise when reasonably and morally justifiable, persistence in accomplishing goals, civic-mindedness, compassion, courage in standing up for one's convictions when conscience demands, tolerance of ambiguity regarding the tensions among competing values and principles, and constitutional patriotism—love of country within the context of loyalty to the values and principles underlying American constitutional democracy, as distinguished from jingoism and chauvinism. Persons applying these traits are exercising civic virtue. Although a few educators have suggested that preparing citizens for participation is sufficient and one need not cultivate the disposition to participate, the vast majority of civic educators seek to cultivate in their students the disposition and desire to be richly engaged in the life of their community and polity and participate in governance at local, state, and national levels.


The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) measures the progress of America's schools in various subjects. The National Assessment Governing Board manages the assessments. Students are tested at the fourth-, eighth-, and twelfth-grade levels. For each subject there are four levels of achievement: advanced, proficient, basic, and below basic.

NAEP civics assessments have been administered irregularly, including tests in 1988, 1998, 2006, and 2010. The reports from these assessments are typically issued within one to two years of the testing. Thus the civic education assessment was conducted in 1988, with the report issued in 1990. The publication in 1994 of the National Standards for Civics and Government provided the National Assessment Governing Board an opportunity to develop a new framework for the civics assessment that would be based on the consensus achieved by the National Standards. Accordingly, in 1996 the assessment was “renormed” to align with the National Standards, and that framework has been used in subsequent assessments.

The results of NAEP civics assessments over the years have been similar, with roughly three-quarters of US students failing to reach the proficient level. The results of the 2010 NAEP civics assessment were reported in the 2011 NAEP Civics Report Card, which showed some modest gains in fourth-grade students' scores, though average eighth-grade scores remained about the same.

Research from other sources largely confirms the challenges facing civic educators and suggests promising practices in civic education. A 2003 report titled “The Civic Mission of Schools” and a 2011 follow-up report titled “Guardian of Democracy” describe school-based practices that research has indicated have positive effects on student achievement. These include formal instruction in civics and government, democracy, law, history, and other related subjects; discussion of current events and controversial issues; service-learning programs that provide students with the opportunity to apply what they learn through performing community service that is linked to the formal curriculum; involving young people in extracurricular activities to get them involved in their schools or communities outside of the classroom; meaningful student participation in school governance; and engaging students in simulations of democratic processes and procedures.


Although nearly every state acknowledges the need for civic education in its constitution or educational codes, it is seldom given explicit, sustained, and systematic attention in the K–12 curriculum. The failure of students to do well in the NAEP study reflects several problems: inadequate state and local policy support or inadequate implementation of existing policy; inadequate curricular requirements; inadequate teacher preparation and professional development opportunities, with many teachers giving civics instruction outside their major field; and the distorting effects on the entire school curriculum of a focus on the Common Core State Standards, which most states have adopted since they were launched in 2009, and high-stakes tests, such as those on mathematics and English language arts, that students need to pass for graduation. Although there are federal funding incentives for states to align their math and English standards and testing with the Common Core standards, there are no such funds available to states in the field of civics, and state education budgets generally do not include line items for civic education.

Dr. Tommy Bice, an Alabama State Department of Education official, visits an elementary school in Montgomery to discuss the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), November 1, 2011.

Dr. Tommy Bice, an Alabama State Department of Education official, visits an elementary school in Montgomery to discuss the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), November 1, 2011.

Because the schools in the states understand that their funding depends on their students' performance on math and English tests, those students from low-income, non-English-speaking, and low-achievement communities receive extra instruction in math and English. This sometimes comes at the expense of civics and other social studies subjects. As a consequence, researchers have identified a “civic education gap” or “civic opportunity gap” between students from low-income areas and those from high-income communities where students receive enhanced civic education experiences. In pursuit of higher test scores in math and English, schools inadvertently exacerbate the gap in civic education opportunities.

For many students, their only explicit civic education is a one-semester course in the twelfth grade, which many civic educators regard as too little and too late. Educators agree that required courses need to start in the earliest school years, as students' civic attitudes have largely been formed by the late teen years. Approximately one-third of American students in low-income urban communities have dropped out of school by the twelfth grade. So, although they might possess the right as citizens to vote, their civic knowledge and skills are at very ineffectual levels.


The ultimate aim of most contemporary civic educators is to cultivate civic knowledge and virtue not by preaching American principles and values but by providing students an education that will lead them to a reasoned commitment to democratic processes when making judgments and managing conflict. In this vision, students who receive a rich civic education will not only be disposed to participate in public life but will be committed to doing so in a reflective, informed, and responsible manner consonant with American civic values and principles. Civic education is an explicit goal of precollegiate schooling. Since the founding of the American republic, its national and state leaders have advocated for the combined academic and civic mission of public schools. Elements of a systemic approach to civics have been articulated, including standards and frameworks.

SEE ALSO Citizenship ; Civic Agency ; Civic Dispositions ; Civic Skills ; Political Socialization .


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John H. Hale
Center for Civic Education