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Coalition proposes 10 state mandates to boost civics education

What are the three branches of the federal government? It's a question nearly 75 percent of American adults cannot correctly answer. A lack of formal civic education could be part of the problem.

The CivXNow Coalition – a bipartisan group of 90 educational, philanthropic and good-government organizations – urged the legislatures in all 50 states on Wednesday to undertake a broad and ambitious program for bolstering young Americans' understanding of how representational democracies and governments work. While most states require some form of civics, the details vary widely, meaning that millions of students who may have learned adequate United States history may nonetheless lack the skills or understand the behavior necessary to participate as active citizens in adulthood.

An understanding of civics is widely understood to be a prerequisite for the sort of political participation that boosts faith in the system. The coalition proposed 10 items that each state should mandate in the cause of boosting civic education beyond the basics – understanding that the legislative, executive and judicial branches are the three parts of the federal system, for example. The most important ideas include:

  • A semester of civics education for middle schoolers and one full year for high schoolers.
  • The setting of precise targets for the number of students who are at least "proficient" on end-of-course civics exams.
  • Requirements to assure that students in poor and minority communities get the same access to civic education as others.
  • Professional development for civics instructors similar to that of math or reading teachers.
  • Giving students opportunities to help govern their school systems in order to give them real-world exposure to civic activism.

"Our American democracy is at risk. Schools play a critical role in preparing young people as responsible and engaged members of our community. Yet, graduating students who know and care about our democracy has not been a priority for decades," said Louise Dubé, the executive director of iCivics, which founded CivXNow. "We see the results."

Fewer than a quarter of students were "proficient" in civics on the the 2014 National Assessment of Educational Progress, the most recent congressionally mandated test to measure how eighth graders perform on a variety of subjects. Black and Latino students scored even worse than their white peers.

The policy menu was crafted by a task force of policy makers and experts on civic education including David Skaggs, a former Democratic congressman from Colorado and now chairman of the board of the Office of Congressional Ethics.

The group says it will provide resources and support to state and local advocates who are trying to implement the suggested policies.

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