Youth civics education

Evidence Rating  
Some Evidence
Evidence rating: Some Evidence

Strategies with this rating are likely to work, but further research is needed to confirm effects. These strategies have been tested more than once and results trend positive overall.

Health Factors  
Decision Makers

Civics education is the instruction of the political and practical aspects of living in a democracy, and the rights and responsibilities that come with it. In K-12 schools, civics education aims to teach students attitudes, skills, knowledge, and behavior needed to participate in and contribute to a democracy1. The content and format of civics education varies by state and school district because there are no mandatory federal standards. Traditional civics courses deliver factual knowledge on the founding fathers, systems, and structure of federal and local government. Non-traditional courses include student participation and discussion of current social issues2, such as simulations engaging students in debates and mock elections or experiential and service-learning assigning students to a project to address community issues3. Civics education policies and requirements vary by state; in some cases requiring a civics course or exam for high school graduation.

What could this strategy improve?

Expected Benefits

Our evidence rating is based on the likelihood of achieving these outcomes:

  • Increased political participation

  • Increased civic participation

  • Increased civic knowledge

Potential Benefits

Our evidence rating is not based on these outcomes, but these benefits may also be possible:

  • Decreased political polarization

What does the research say about effectiveness? This strategy is rated some evidence.

There is some evidence that civics education for K-12 students increases students’ civic participation3, 4, 5, political participation including voting1, 4, 6, 7, 8, 9, and civic knowledge2, 10, 11, 12. Additional evidence is needed to confirm effects, especially in elementary students, and to determine which instructional practices and curricula are most effective3, 13.

Overall, civics education can increase students’ interest in voting and their engagement in electoral politics3 and political action1, but effects vary by instructional content1, 6. High school civics education may increase voting in young adulthood8 and may increase participation in politics online through social media4. A Florida-based study of a high quality, comprehensive civics education program for middle and high school students indicated increases in voter registration and intent to register to vote among participants7. State-level civics requirements for high school students, such as civics courses and exams, can increase students’ knowledge about politics and government11, 13, particularly for Latino immigrant students11. Mandated civics exams may increase voter registration and turnout in young adults, but mandated courses may not have an effect9. In general, civic knowledge can promote students’ support for democratic values, interests in the political process, understanding of the impact of political policies, and actual political participation14.

Civics education programs using role play and political simulations can increase civic participation among middle and high school students3. Studies of Generation Citizen, a student-centered and action-oriented civics curriculum for middle and high school students, suggests such programs can increase students’ knowledge about collective action and help them recognize their ability to participate and have an impact on civic and political life2, 10; it may also enhance academic engagement among participants15. Civics education teaching societal issues and discussing controversial issues can increase both online and offline civic engagement among high school students4. Civics instruction addressing digital engagement literacy (i.e., teaching how to discuss social or political issues online) may also increase online participation in political activities on social media4. A study of We the People, a civics education program that includes professional development training for high school teachers, suggests the program can increase political knowledge among students who engage in the program more than students in a traditional civics class taught by teachers without such training12.

Civics education that uses classroom discussion, community service projects, and encourages open sharing of views in high school is associated with decreased political polarization in adulthood16, 17. In an open classroom climate, students are exposed to different political opinions from their classmates and teachers foster respect for political differences; such environments are positively associated with students’ civic knowledge, intent to vote, understanding of the role of political conflict, belief that students can make positive changes, and actual participation in community service18, 19.

To achieve high quality civics education, experts recommend classroom discussion of current events, simulations of democratic processes such as mock trials and elections, use of community projects or service learning that is linked to classroom instruction, student participation in school governance and simulations of democratic processes, extracurricular activities to get involved in schools and communities, support for teachers to deliver equitable and inclusive civics education, and an open classroom climate that promotes sharing of views13, 16, 20, 21, 22, 23. For example, using a deliberative strategy for discussion of controversial issues, rather than debate, appears to increase comfort among participants and reduce polarized views24. Experts also suggest civics education curricula that focus on civil society and social justice, use an action-oriented approach, provide an instructor’s guide and instructional materials that represent history correctly (e.g., colonization), and help students develop civic reasoning22, 25, 26, 27.

A civics summer camp for middle school students appears to increase students’ intention to engage in community and political action5.

How could this strategy advance health equity? This strategy is rated potential to decrease disparities: suggested by expert opinion.

Experts suggest civics education has the potential to decrease disparities in civic knowledge and civic and political engagement across diverse populations39, 40, 41. Civics education in K-12 schools can offer civic learning opportunities to students from groups with historically unequal civic and political power, providing the chance to gain essential civic knowledge, skills, and identity21. Historically there have been continued gaps in voter turnout by race, ethnicity, and socio-economic status. In the 2020 presidential election, 61% of voting-eligible white young adults (ages 18-29) were estimated to vote, compared to 48% of Latino, 47% of Asian, and 43% of Black young adults42. Young adults (ages 18-29) who had never attended college were underrepresented across all racial and ethnic groups in the 2022 midterm election: only about 10% of young adult voters had no college experience43.

School-based civics education that adopts a critical approach and discusses societal inequities has the potential to decrease gaps in access to high quality civics instruction by making it more relevant to students of color40. Available evidence indicates that civics education can affect racial and ethnic groups in different ways. Taking civics courses in high school may increase white students’ belief in government responsiveness and their own ability to influence public issues, but not for Black and Latino students, for which it appears to increase expression of their viewpoints on public issue, including participation in protests44. Civics education that focuses on grassroots political action among marginalized populations may increase willingness to participate in political action for Latino high school students, but not for Black students1. State-level civics course requirements appear to increase civic knowledge among students who are Latino immigrants more than others11. Civics education in an open classroom climate appears to have greater impact on intended voting for students from low socioeconomic backgrounds than those from higher socioeconomic backgrounds18. Racial and ethnic minority students in an open classroom climate are more likely to believe that they can make positive change in school compared to their white peers19.

Experts recommend creating inclusive civics education, addressing advocacy for justice and equity, and matching teaching methods to students’ needs for diverse populations, such as LGBTQ+ students and students with disabilities41, 45.

What is the relevant historical background?

In the 18th century, educating Americans about the principles of virtue and liberty was critical to create a new national identity. Civics education became a standard part of the curriculum in U.S. public schools to pass this identify down to younger generations46. In the 1920s, states added civics courses into high school curricula in response to more U.S. citizens being granted the right to vote, specifically Black men and women. However, civics courses were not prioritized for Black students who were encouraged to take trade courses to work in a segregated labor market47.

During the later half of the twentieth century, American education underwent several waves of change. The space race with Russia in the 1950s and 1960s led to extensive investment in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education48. Congress passed the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) in 2001, which incentivized schools to focus on math and reading rather than civics or social studies. Over time, with relatively less attention and resources available, the number of students taking civics in public schools declined, and there was growing concern about the quality and time spent on formal civics education in K-12 schools47, 48. The National Standards for Civics and Government was developed as federally supported standards in 199449 and the College, Career, and Civic Life (C3) Framework provides recommendations to states revising their standards50, 51, but these guidelines are not mandatory. By 1999, the standard high school government course was a simplified political science course, lacking explicit discussion of a citizen’s role47, with wide variations in state civics education policies and requirements that made it difficult to ensure the quality of civics education47.

Overall, youth civic participation has increased over time. However, structural barriers (e.g., structural racism, cumulative disinvestment in public schools) and inequities in opportunities continue to prevent youth with marginalized backgrounds from participating in civic life compared to their privileged peers52. Moreover, access to and quality of civics education is not equitably distributed across public schools, with limited civics education opportunities for students of color and students in communities with low incomes52, 53. Over the last two decades, eighth graders who are Black and/or are from families with lower incomes consistently have lower scores on a national civics test than white students and students with higher family incomes54. To increase access to civics education across K-12 and higher education classes, the bipartisan Civics Secures Democracy Act was introduced in the Senate in June 2022 but stalled in Congress. The bill intends to expand high quality civics education programs and invest in teacher training and curriculum planning by funding state education agencies, qualified nonprofits, and higher education institutes and research55. However, opponents argue that the bill is likely to introduce ideological instruction to K-12 schools, such as critical race theory and action civics56.

Equity Considerations
  • How civically and politically active is your state and local community? Who is less likely to participate and why?
  • Who is involved in deciding your state and local civics education curriculum? Whose voice is missing in designing civics courses?
  • What are your state’s civics education policies and requirements? What infrastructure (e.g., academic standards and assessments) and supports should a state provide to support K-12 school civics instruction?
  • What supports are needed for teachers’ professional development to design and deliver civics instruction that encourage student participatory learning and understanding of diverse values and points of view?
Implementation Examples

As of December 2019, 40 states and Washington, D.C. require at least one American government or civics course in high school, mostly for only one semester. Sixteen states require high school students to pass a civics test for graduation. Colorado provides well-designed curricula via one year-long civics courses and Idaho introduces civics education at an early age, incorporating civics standards into social studies beginning in kindergarten and offering a formal civics course in high school28. As of 2023, 25 states provide academic credit for students’ service learning29.

A recent evaluation of the content, rigor, clarity, and organization of state civics standards reports that exemplary states’ (e.g., Alabama, California, Massachusetts, Tennessee, and Washington, D.C.) standards clarify essential knowledge, build skills for critical thinking, and promote civic dispositions such as respecting others and being informed on civic issues. These states provide a strong civics course in middle school30.

Chicago public schools developed a civics curriculum, Participate Civics, for middle and high school students31. Available civics programs are Kids Voting USA32, We the People33, iCivics34, Generation Citizen35, and Close Up36. Various annual awards recognize organizations, programs, or individual teachers for innovation, accomplishment, or exceptional expertise in civics education, such as the National Center for State Courts (NCSC)’s Sandra Day O’Connor Award for the Advancement of Civics Education37 and the Center for Civic Education’s American Civic Education Teacher Awards38.

Implementation Resources

Resources with a focus on equity.

CivXNow-State policy menu - CivXNow Coalition. State policy menu.

CIRCLE-Civic equity 2023 - Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE). Equitable civic learning for all: How K-12 schools can grow voters. 2023.

Footnotes

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1 Nelsen 2021 - Nelsen MD. Cultivating youth engagement: Race & the behavioral effects of critical pedagogy. Political Behavior. 2021;43:751-784.

2 Cohen 2018 - Cohen AK, Littenberg-Tobias J, Ridley-Kerr A, et al. Action civics education and civic outcomes for urban youth: An evaluation of the impact of Generation Citizen. Citizenship Teaching and Learning. 2018;13(3):351-368.

3 Lin 2015a - Lin A. Citizenship education in American schools and its role in developing civic engagement: A review of the research. Educational Review. 2015;67(1):35-63.

4 Bowyer 2020 - Bowyer B, Kahne J. The digital dimensions of civic education: Assessing the effects of learning opportunities. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology. 2020;69:101162.

5 Blevins 2021 - Blevins B, LeCompte KN, Riggers-Piehl T, Scholten N, Magill KR. The impact of an action civics program on the community & political engagement of youth. The Social Studies. 2021;112(3):146-160.

6 Weinschenk 2022 - Weinschenk AC, Dawes CT. Civic education in high school and voter turnout in adulthood. British Journal of Political Science. 2022;52:934-948.

7 Berson 2014 - Berson MJ, Rodríguez-Campos L, Walker-Egea C, Owens C, Bellara A. Youth engagement in electoral activities: A collaborative evaluation of a civic education project. Journal of Education and Training Studies. 2014;2(1):81-87.

8 Siegel-Stechler 2019 - Siegel-Stechler K. Is civics enough? High school civics education and young adult voter turnout. The Journal of Social Studies Research. 2019;43(3):241-253.

9 Giersch 2018 - Giersch J, Dong C. Required civics courses, civics exams, and voter turnout. The Social Science Journal. 2018;55:160-170.

10 Ballard 2016 - Ballard PJ, Cohen AK, Littenberg-Tobias J. Action civics for promoting civic development: Main effects of program participation and differences by project characteristics. American Journal of Community Psychology. 2016;58(3-4):377-390.

11 Campbell 2016 - Campbell D, Niemi R. Testing civics: State-level civic education requirements and political knowledge. American Political Science Review. 2016;110(3):495-511.

12 Owen 2015 - Owen D. High school students’ acquisition of civic knowledge: The impact of We the People. Calabasas, CA: Center for Civic Education; 2015.

13 Campbell 2019 - Campbell D. What social scientists have learned about civic education: A review of the literature. Peabody Journal of Education. 2019;94(1):32-47.

14 Galston 2001 - Galston WA. Political knowledge, political engagement, and civic education. Annual Review of Political Science. 2001;4(1):217-234.

15 Cohen 2021 - Cohen AK, Fitzgerald JC, Ridley-Kerr A, Castro EM, Ballard PJ. Investigating the impact of generation citizen’s action civics education program on student academic engagement. The Clearing House: A Journal of Educational Strategies, Issues and Ideas. 2021;94(4):168-180.

16 Clark 2023 - Clark CH. Civic education’s relationship to affective partisan divides later in life. Education, Citizenship and Social Justice. 2023;18(1):37-58.

17 Clark 2017 - Clark CH. Examining the relationship between civic education and partisan alignment in young voters. Theory & Research in Social Education. 2017;45:218-247.

18 Campbell 2008 - Campbell DE. Voice in the classroom: How an open classroom climate fosters political engagement among adolescents. Political Behavior. 2008;30(4):437-454.

19 Godfrey 2014 - Godfrey EB, Grayman JK. Teaching citizens: The role of open classroom climate in fostering critical consciousness among youth. Journal of Youth and Adolescence. 2014;43(11):1801-1817.

20 Gibson 2003 - Gibson C, Levine P. The civic mission of schools. Carnegie Corporation of New York; The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE); 2003.

21 Gould 2011 - Gould J, Jamieson KH, Levine P, McConnell T, Smith DB, eds. Guardian of democracy: The civic mission of schools. Philadelphia: Leonore Annenberg Institute for Civics of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania; 2011.

22 RAND-Gardner 2020 - Gardner M. Want to rebuild public trust? Focus on civic education. Santa Monica: RAND Corporation; 2020.

23 Brookings-Levesque 2018 - Levesque EM. What does civics education look like in America? Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution; 2018.

24 McAvoy 2021 - McAvoy P, McAvoy GE. Can debate and deliberation reduce partisan divisions? Evidence from a study of high school students. Peabody Journal of Education. 2021;96(3):275-284.

25 Ho 2020 - Ho L, Barton KC. Preparation for civil society: A necessary element of curriculum for social justice. Theory & Research in Social Education. 2020;48(4):471-491.

26 NAEd-Lee 2021 - Lee C, White G, Dong D, eds. Educating for civic reasoning and discourse. Washington, D.C.: National Academy of Education (NAEd); 2021.

27 Bauml 2023 - Bauml M, Quinn BP, Blevins B, Magill KR, LeCompte K. “I really want to do something”: How civic education activities promote thinking toward civic purpose among early adolescents. Journal of Adolescent Research. 2023;38(1):110-142.

28 CAP-Shapiro 2018 - Shapiro S, Brown C. The state of civics education. Washington, D.C.: Center for American Progress (CAP); 2018.

29 CivXNow-State policies - CivXNow Coalition. Current state policies.

30 Fordham-Stern 2021 - Stern JA, Brody AE, Gregory JA, et al. The state of state standards for civics and U.S. history in 2021. Washington, D.C.: Thomas B. Fordham Institute; 2021.

31 CPS-Participate - Chicago Public Schools (CPS), Department of Social Science and Civic Engagement. Participate civics.

32 Kids Voting - Kids Voting USA. Creating lifelong voting habits in children.

33 WTP - We the People (WTP). The citizen and the Constitution.

34 iCivics - iCivics. Reimagine civic education for American democracy.

35 GC - Generation Citizen (GC). Transform civics education.

36 Close Up - Close Up. Inspire students to find their unique voice.

37 NCSC-Civics - National Center for State Courts (NCSC). Civics education.

38 ACETA - Center for Civic Education. American Civic Education Teacher Awards (ACETA).

39 NASEM 2023 - National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM). Civic engagement and civic infrastructure to advance health equity: Proceedings of a workshop. Washington, D.C.: The National Academies Press; 2023.

40 Clay 2020 - Clay KL, Rubin BC. “I look deep into this stuff because it’s a part of me”: Toward a critically relevant civics education. Theory & Research in Social Education. 2020;48(2):161-181.

41 Kattari 2023 - Kattari L. Civic education’s role in advancing health equity for LGBTQIA2S+ youth. Health Promotion Practice. 2023;24(1):59-61.

42 CIRCLE-Voter turnout 2021 - Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE). 2020 Youth voter turnout by race/ethnicity and gender. 2021.

43 CIRCLE-Suzuki 2022 - Suzuki S, Guzman P, Medina A. Young voters in 2022: Black and non-college youth were underrepresented. Medford: Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE); 2022.

44 Nelsen 2021a - Nelsen MD. Teaching citizenship: Race and the behavioral effects of American civic education. Journal of Race, Ethnicity, and Politics. 2021;6(1):157-186.

45 Garwood 2021 - Garwood JD, Ciullo S, Wissinger DR, McKenna JW. Civics education for students with learning disabilities and emotional and behavioral disorders. Intervention in School and Clinic. 2021;56(4):250–254.

46 IHH-Civics education 2021 - The Inclusive Historian’s Handbook (IHH). Civics education. 2021.

47 Wilson 2019a - Wilson JJ, Sadler J, Cohen-Vogel N, Willis C. An examination of changes to state civic education requirements, 2004–2016. Peabody Journal of Education. 2019;94(1): 48-62.

48 Brookings-Winthrop 2020 - Winthrop R. The need for civic education in 21st-century schools. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution; 2020.

49 CivicEd-Standards - The Center for Civic Education (CivicEd). The national standards for civics and government.

50 C3 Framework - National Council for the Social Studies. College, Career, and Civic Life (C3) Framework for social studies state standards: Guidance for enhancing the rigor of K-12 civics, economics, geography, and history. Silver Spring, MD: National Council for the Social Studies; 2013.

51 AIR-Social studies 2021 - American Institutes for Research (AIR). Social studies standards: A national landscape scan. Arlington, VA: American Institutes for Research; 2021.

52 Fitzgerald 2021 - Fitzgerald JC, Cohen AK, Castro EM, Pope A. A systematic review of the last decade of civic education research in the United States. Peabody Journal of Education. 2021;96(3):235-246.

53 CIRCLE-Civic equity 2023 - Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE). Equitable civic learning for all: How K-12 schools can grow voters. 2023.

54 Brookings-Hansen 2020 - Hansen M, Quintero D, Vazquez-Martinez A. Latest NAEP results show American students continue to underperform on civics. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution; 2020.

55 S 4384 - 117th Congress 2021-2022. Senate (S) 4384: Civics Secures Democracy Act.

56 RCED-Sabo 2022 - Sabo M. The controversy behind Congress's $1 billion civics bill. RealClearEducation (RCED). 2022.

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