The State Of High School Civic Education

The State Of High School Civic Education

11:38pm Feb 10, 2019
By 2020 over 14 million current high school students will be eligible to vote. Will they be ready?
Sean Bueter/WFDD

The 2018 annual Annenberg Constitution Day Civics Survey showed that when it comes to knowledge of civics, most Americans struggle. Only 32% of respondents were able to name all three branches of the government (Executive, Legislative, and Judicial), and about a quarter, incorrectly believes that the President can ignore a Supreme Court ruling if he disagrees with it. Radio 101 student, Owen Clifford, set out to see if the level of civic knowledge among high school students was similar to what the survey showed. It’s fair to say the results were not very promising.

For example, a student said there are 42 senators in the U.S. (the correct answer is 100). Another didn’t know who the Governor of North Carolina is (currently Dem. Roy Cooper), and one student even said that there are 10 U.S. Supreme Court Justices (the correct number is 9).

The North Carolina Public Schools Social Studies standards establishes that by the time a student graduates high school, the knowledge acquired through Civics and Economic courses is the necessary one to "become responsible and effective citizens in an interdependent world."

Now, this brings up two questions. First of all, what is “necessary knowledge”? And second, how effective can these students be when they don’t know the answers to the most basic questions about the world they live in?

For the first question, we turned to Kelly Siegel-Stechler, a research fellow at the John Hopkins Institute for Education Policy

“Ideally, civics should be focused around an action-oriented, skills-based, civics-based curriculum where students not only learn about the structure and function of government, but really what their role in it is and how they can be an active member of that,” Siegel-Stechler explains.

For the second question, we went to a different expert. Jason Gainous is a Political Science Professor at the University of Louisville and his research might shed some light on why high school students might not know the answers to these civics questions.

“If you ask students how many books they had at home and whether or not their parents went to college, that predicted their knowledge sixty times more than anything a teacher could do,” Gainous explained.

According to both Siegel-Stechler and Gainous, civic engagement and knowledge then seems to require a holistic approach. One that encompases both a change in the curricula to include more skill-based elements and a change at home to encourage discussion.

With an election in just two years and many of these high-school students turning 18 by 2020 and being eligible to vote for the first time, increasing civic knowledge and engagement is at the forefront of the agenda for those seeking that youth vote. How to achieve that, though? The jury is still out on that one.