Last week, the American Enterprise Institute hosted an event discussing the failings of civics education in America. The panelists referred to the dismal state of civics literacy as a “Sputnik moment” – a reference to when the Soviet Union successfully launched the world’s first satellite in 1957, stirring the United States to create the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and dramatically increase its space exploration efforts.
Nothing illustrates this comparison better than the election of Donald Trump. As Trump has demonstrated time and time again, he knows little about governing or policy – instead relying on divisive rhetoric and petulant Twitter tantrums. His most recent gaffe: at a White House convening of the nation’s governors, Trump said that “nobody knew health care could be so complicated.” As it turns out, many people knew.
However, if Trump can name all three branches of government, that alone would put him ahead of nearly three quarters of Americans. According to a 2016 survey conducted by the Annenberg Public Policy Center, only 26 percent of respondents could name all three branches, and 31 percent could not name a single one.
Data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) also show poor results. In 2014 – the most recent NAEP civics assessment – only 23 percent of eighth grade students scored at or above the proficient level. The same is true of older students getting ready to vote. In 2010, when NAEP last tested high school seniors, only 24 percent scored at or above the proficient level. Neither of these results has changed significantly since 1998.
At the same time, faith in many of America’s institutions are at historic lows – even before Trump’s election. And it’s likely that his constant attacks on various institutions will only serve to worsen these numbers. This crisis of confidence only feeds into the growing level of polarization, making it nearly impossible to govern effectively. It’s no wonder that recent congresses have been arguably some of the least productive ever.
Despite these difficulties, the American people seem well aware of the problem at hand. According to the 2016 PDK poll of the public’s attitudes toward the public schools, 82 percent of Americans believe preparing students to be good citizens is very or extremely important. At the same time, only 33 percent think the public schools in their communities are doing that job very or extremely well.
So what is to be done?
Some states are taking action. According to a recent report from the Education Commission of the States, 37 states require some form of civic education assessment. However, only 17 states include civics and social studies in their accountability systems. 15 states require proficiency on a social studies or civics test as a graduation requirement, 12 of which passed such laws in just the past two years.
However, those 12 states use civics tests with questions drawn from the United States Immigration and Naturalization Test. It’s better than nothing, but that test is far from a high-quality assessment. It consists of 100 basic questions with pre-approved answers that ask test-takers to name one branch of the government, or know how many amendments have been made to the Constitution. These memorization-style questions aren’t particularly illuminating, and many of the official answers are disputed.
In the years following Sputnik’s launch, the federal government began steadily and significantly increasing funding for NASA. It needs to do the same to improve civics education. The Every Student Succeeds Act, signed into law in December 2015, includes certain provisions related to civics education, but it remains to be seen how much funding those programs will receive.
And funding for NAEP has actually been reduced in recent years. As currently scheduled, the NAEP civics assessment is too infrequent. High school seniors won’t be tested by NAEP in civics again until 2022 – 12 years from the last assessment. And the most recent test did not include state-level results. Currently, only the fourth and eighth grade reading and math NAEP assessments provide scores for each state. Both of these factors make it difficult to see which states are improving in civics proficiency, preventing best practices from emerging out of their success.
It is important to remember that our original “Sputnik moment” came in response to a loss to the Soviet Union. The election of Donald Trump was also a loss for America – and possibly another loss to Russia. It is imperative that we heed this warning and take action to ensure that our nation’s children are equipped to be capable citizens in the 21st Century.