The “Nation’s Report Card” is in, and it’s dismal. According to the most recent analysis by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, less than a quarter of U.S. high school seniors demonstrate proficiency in civics, and just 12 percent of them meet that standard for U.S. history. The figures are only modestly better for students in grades 4 and 8.
Adults aren’t doing much better.
According to a survey last August, only 51 percent of adults were able to name all three branches of government (up from 39 percent in 2019) and only 54 percent understood that a 5-4 ruling by the Supreme Court becomes the law of the land. Meanwhile, only 17 percent of Americans say they trust the federal government “to do the right thing,” either “just about always” or “most of the time,” down from about 75 percent in 1958.
We believe that a more robust civics curriculum is essential to American democracy.
While Republicans and Democrats are bitterly divided on many issues, leaders of both parties appear to agree on this topic. With this in mind, Senators John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Chris Coons (D-Del.) recently introduced a bill calling for an annual investment of $1 billion “to support and expand access to civics and history education in schools across the country.”
Unfortunately, there is sharp disagreement about what should be taught and how. Recent debates have focused the New York Times 1619 project and the report of former President Trump’s Advisory 1776 Commission, two radically different approaches to the teaching of American history that illustrate the problem.
Building on the detailed recommendations released last month by the non-profit Educating for American Democracy (with financial support from the U.S. Department of Education and the National Endowment of the Humanities), we recommend a conceptual framework that will help students acquire political literacy, learn interpretive rigor, and understand the nature of historical contingency.