Civics Education in the Schools Research Paper Starter

Civics Education in the Schools

(Research Starters)

This article provides a historical overview of civics education and discusses the increase in this method of education in the public schools over the last several years. Civics education refers to educating children from childhood to become enlightened thinkers, capable of making informed decisions concerning societal issues. Civics education began to get special attention in the early 1900s. Today, civics education in public schools uses a number of methods to teach including service learning activities, science, social interaction activities, and international initiatives.

Keywords Citizenship; Civics Education; Community Service; Curriculum; Democracy; Service Learning


Civics education, also known as civic education, refers to educating children from childhood to become enlightened thinkers, capable of making informed decisions concerning societal issues. It involves training young people to be knowledgeable citizens who understand society's human and political issues. A goal of civics education is to ensure that each citizen has a good understanding of ethical and moral behavior. In addition, each type of civics education strives to teach individuals to respect others and acknowledge equal opportunity for all, regardless of race, gender, religion, etc. (UNESCO, n.d.).


Because of changing educational theories, political issues and socio-economic conditions, the scope of civics education has shifted over the last half-century. Civics education was originally designed to teach the basics about governance and encourage citizens to hold American democratic values in high regard. Consisting of mostly specific subject matter that was to be memorized, civics education was developed as a part of the study of history or civil government (Cornbleth, 1971).

In 1916, a growing concern about civics education was expressed in a report by the National Education Association Committee on Social Studies. With good citizenship identified as the major goal of social studies, recommendations were made for improvements. For example, the establishment of separate civics courses in schools was suggested. A content focus with emphasis on social science and history, which would be used to highlight student experiences and interests with contemporary societal issues, was also recommended. In addition, suggestions that student participation be incorporated into the curriculums were among the report's recommendations (Cornbleth, 1971).

1918 brought more attention to civics education through the Committee on the Reorganization of Secondary Education. The Committee, through a report, suggested that all school subjects incorporate citizenship in some manner. Civics education then began to expand -- between 1920 and 1940 -- to include knowledge of governance and its responsibility to provide social services, its role in school issues (i.e. student government), the government's role in social reform, and its' participation in community activities like safety and clean-up initiatives. Civics education also began to include subjects like moral-ethical character development, driver's education, health and safety programs and vocational subjects (Cornbleth, 1971).

The root of civics education is in traditionalist educational thought. In its beginning, children were seen as undisciplined, lazy and required structured teaching of simple facts and doctrines. The task of civics education then, was to teach children the shared values that were vital to citizenship within the community, and at the same time, instill habits associated with being a good citizen (Heater, 2002). The traditional perspective suggests that there are specific sets of values and political knowledge required for good citizenship, in which public schools play a big part. Civics education was to instill loyalty in preparation of students to be good citizens (Dubnick, 2003).

Civic Education in Current Times

Today, civics education is taught in a manner that stresses the constant link between knowledge and practice. Methods like peer to peer discussions and dialogue between students and teachers are used to allow students to express themselves. In addition, songs, poems, drawings, and various types of written material give students a stage to reflect on their roles as citizens (UNESCO).

As a result of education goals across the country, as well as curricular requirements and state policies, more emphasis is being placed on civics education and attention is increasingly growing toward the importance of this piece of a child's overall education in the K-12 environment (National Standards for Civics).

The need for a greater focus on civics education has been seen with decreasing voter turnout, specifically among young people, and a decline in civic participation across the country. Within the last ten years however, civics education has gained outstanding national attention, especially in North Carolina, which has come in the form of grant funding. In Chapel Hill, NC, students now have the opportunity to learn how citizens can help come up with solutions to community problems through grants from the Civic Education Consortium at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill's Institute of Government and the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation (Civic education throughout state gets boost, 1999).

Civic Education Consortium

Housed on the campus of UNC-Chapel Hill, the Civic Education Consortium consists of more than 200 individuals and organizations interested in providing first-hand civic teachings for youth in elementary, middle and secondary schools. The consortium places local community leaders into classrooms and facilitates student interactions in projects that look at issues affecting their communities (Civic education throughout state gets boost, 1999).

Just a few examples of the funding given by the Civic Education Consortium includes the following: the Gates County Extension Service 4-H Program received $7,500 for its peer leader program, to teach 4-H peers about leadership and civics education via interactive and issue-based projects. They will develop and carry out community service projects and lead civic training workshops for 200 of their peers in other 4-H clubs across the county. $3,500 was given to the W.C. Friday Middle School Student Council to help student council members learn about government at all levels and record their activities on videotape. Tapes were then distributed to elementary and middle schools in the county. The student council members had the opportunity to meet government officials, interview various civic officials and participate in student debates and forums (Civic education throughout state gets boost in funding, 1999).

In addition, $7,000 was given to the Student Government Association of Wake Forest-Rolesville High School in Wake County to provide middle and secondary schools across the state with a model to use to create a Student Legislative Assembly. This is a two-day, student-run event that involves students writing, debating, amending and voting on bills that address North Carolina problems. The Wake Forest-Rolesville Student Government Association will publish and distribute a "how-to" guide to share with other groups of students and peers (Civic education throughout state gets boost, 1999).


Service Learning

One of the most common forms of civics education is service learning. Hepburn (1997) explains that service learning strives to unite the learning that takes place in school, with out-of-school work. The goal is to increase democratic education and help the community with various needs.

An ancient Chinese proverb describes the mission of service learning, "Tell me, and I will forget. Show me, and I will remember. Involve me, and I will understand" (cited in Seigel & Rockwood, 1993, p. 67). Service learning teaches this concept by exposing children to community service projects that bring the school and community together. These activities are incorporated into the academic curriculum to support civic education. Students are able to use their experiences in the community for serious reflection in the classroom about the nature of democracy (Garman, 1995).


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