The inadequacy of civics education in most U.S. schools has been a big topic of national conversation since Donald Trump was elected president in 2016 — and even more so since the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.

That was the event that federal prosecutors have called an unprecedented domestic attack on the U.S. government — by supporters of Trump — that led to five deaths and the arrests, so far, of more than 410 people, according to this Washington Post investigation.

They have been collectively charged with more than 600 felony charges and more than twice that number of misdemeanors. Meanwhile, many Republicans continue to repeat the same falsehood they did: that the 2020 election was stolen from Trump.

Recently a new initiative called Educating for American Democracy released a road map for improving the teaching of social studies, and there is a legislation in Congress concerning civics education.

Now, a new report on what civics education should look like, titled “Educating for Civic Reasoning and Discourse,” has been released by the National Academy of Education — a nongovernmental nonprofit organization that aims to improve education with high-quality research.

It argues that beefed up civics and history classes won’t be enough to prepare young people to engage in national conversations about complex social issues.

This post, written by Carol D. Lee, professor emeritus at the School of Education and Social Policy at Northwestern University, explains what’s in the report. She is president-elect of the National Academy of Education.

By Carol D. Lee

A survey by the Annenberg Public Policy Center in 2020 found that 51 percent of American adults were able to identify the three branches of the federal government. Its 2019 survey found that some 40 percent thought people in the United States illegally had no rights. Over the last several decades, less than a quarter of students in Grades 8 and 12 have demonstrated proficiency on the test covering basic civic knowledge on the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

The general public’s knowledge about our government remains an ongoing challenge. Many concerned Americans are engaged in efforts to address what the low level of political literacy and participation means for education. The Civics Secures Democracy Act has been proposed by a bipartisan group and is currently before Congress. Other efforts are taking place at the state level.

These efforts, however, do not deal with another basic issue, which is the growing political polarization in the nation.

We are deeply divided over the electoral process and over how to address the persistent challenges rooted in structural inequalities associated with race/ethnicity, class and gender. Many are deeply skeptical of government at the federal and state levels.

The United States has a long and contested history of how it acts on issues of immigration. These deep divisions have been deeply intensified as the nation wrestles with the worldwide covid-19 pandemic, which has shed light on persistent sources of inequality that existed before the pandemic.

In the short and long run, a basic question is about the role of education, particularly in the K-12 education sector, in preparing our youth to engage in thoughtful ways with these tensions and complexities in the public domain.

The National Academy of Education has released a free downloadable report, “Educating for Civic Reasoning and Discourse,” which addresses the special role that K-12 education can and should play. (See report here or below.)

This report is unique in arguing that what is entailed in preparing youth to engage in civic reasoning and discourse cannot be achieved solely by taking a U.S. history or traditional civics course.

The report argues that the demands of civic learning must be distributed across all the content areas and extend from kindergarten to high school graduation. Civic education includes content knowledge (about our government’s structure and the importance of voting).

As important, it requires content knowledge about the issues that affect our lives, especially those in which government plays some role in addressing.

Also of crucial importance is the development of dispositions to value the exploration of complex issues, to consider multiple points of view, to weigh evidence and to empathize with others. So is the development of the ability to reason about moral and ethical issues rooted in basic democratic values. Such moral and ethical issues are often embedded in our democratic decision-making.

These are the values articulated in our country’s founding documents addressing the inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Our government is uniquely structured to accommodate differences in our conceptions of such pursuits, within a commitment to the common good and respect for one another.

At the time of this report’s publication in 2021, multiple converging crises have made the urgent need for skills in civic reasoning and discourse starkly evident. Increasing polarization and unprecedented strain on our democratic institutions are coinciding with social protests of persistent racial injustices.

At the same time, a health pandemic, an economic shock and a continuing climate crisis have challenged the world. In the short term, there is a question of how multiple levels of society can succeed in working together to address our collective needs.

There is an equally important longer-term need, which is to prepare a new generation of young people to take up the mantle of democratic participation and decision-making. In fact, there are many young people who are currently active in attempts to influence how we address today’s many challenges.

This report does not advocate any particular position regarding what students should think about questions that arise in the public domain. However, the authors believe it is important that youth are prepared to engage in civic reasoning and discourse in ways that value complexity and avoid simplistic answers to complex social issues.

Examples of such complexities include:

How do we navigate tensions between the powers and limits of federal, state, local and tribal governments to protect collective well-being, as well as the rights of people to assert their individual rights? This can include issues such as wearing a mask during a pandemic or requiring that children or adults be vaccinated.

What should be the relations among levels of government and collective actions when fighting a public health crisis or defending a national border?

How do we navigate tensions between the rights of groups of people with opposing political and social views, including those who may hold racist, homophobic and other deeply biased points of view, to publicly protest?

How do we think about tensions among persistent examples of police violence against people (especially Black and Brown peoples), the needs for protection of the public and by whom, the rights of police as public employees, the funding of police departments and the training of police?

What disciplinary knowledge, skills, and dispositions are needed to critically examine information and evidence to inform civic reasoning and discourse? Examples include:

  • Interpretation and understanding of mathematical modeling produced for public consumption around trends in the spread of the pandemic or climate change;
  • Ability to examine arguments related to economic trends that should be considered in public policy;
  • Understanding of what appear to be invisible algorithmic structures that govern what information is selected, curated and highlighted, often influencing hiring decisions, medical treatments and other critical decision-making; and
  • Knowledge of potential cause–effect relations among prior conditions, interventions, processes and outcomes. This could apply to topics around the covid-19 crisis, the economic crisis, the health care crisis and a variety of local concerns and issues.

The report proposes the following:

  1. The curriculum, pedagogy, assessments and standards for civic reasoning and discourse need to be built on what is known about the science of human learning and development.
  2. Civic learning should occur in environments that support students’ active engagement in discussion and projects that are built on inquiry.
  3. Civic education should take place across the curriculum and the K-12 grades.
  4. Civic learning should help students in questioning the reliability of digital and other media.
  5. Infrastructures in research, teacher training, curriculum development, assessments and state as well as federal policies are needed to provide the environment for building these competencies into our educational systems.

We invite the broader community, especially in education and other key stakeholders, to take up the implications of this report for K-12 education across the curriculum.

Together, we must be untied by the goal to prepare our young people to wrestle with the complexities of civic life in ways that are thoughtful, informed by evidence, grounded in democratic values and respectful of different points of view.

Our democracy depends on building such capacities.