Carney is a journalist and founder of The Civic Circle, a civic education nonprofit.
The movement to expand civic education has swept into state legislatures across the country, and that's both good news and bad news for civics advocates.
On the plus side, civic education mandates have brought together politicians and policy experts on both sides of the aisle. Several states, including Illinois and Massachusetts, have imposed broad new civics graduation requirements, while legislatures across the country are mulling more than 80 bills to bolster civic education.
But the civics craze has also exposed deep and lingering rifts over how to tell the American story — and just what it is that students should learn.
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News. Community. Debate. Levers for better democracy.
Civic education is back, and not for the first time. In recent decades, policy makers, educators and democracy advocates have launched one initiative after another with promises to finally make American government relevant and compelling to students.
Mostly, these have failed. We've had commissions, studies, federal funding. We've had debates over whether kids should learn the three branches of government and the Bill of Rights, or learn how to mobilize for equity and social justice. Nothing, it seems, has worked. Adults and kids alike remain appallingly ignorant of the most basic facts about American democracy, from which rights the First Amendment protects to the three branches of government.
Part of the problem is that textbooks and curriculum materials tend to overemphasize things like the granular details of the War of 1812, while ignoring more compelling questions like: What is democracy? How can you make it work for you? Existing civic instruction also tends to focus almost exclusively on middle and upper schoolers. This misses a key window during elementary school, when kids are forming their views of what's fair, where they fit in and what it takes to get along with others.