Q: Do schools still teach civics? My middle school-age daughter has no clue how government works. How can I help her develop civics knowledge in an interesting way?
A: Middle-schoolers aren't the only ones who can't tell a senator from a representative. The Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania finds alarming civic illiteracy among adults. In a recent poll, only slightly more than a third of Americans surveyed could name the three branches of the U.S. government. Thirty-five percent couldn't name a single branch. (Test yourself at civicseducationinitiative.com/take-the-test.)
Social studies, which include civics, suffered with the passage of No Child Left Behind. "In an age of high-stakes testing, teachers are under immense pressure to teach what's tested, and science, math, reading and writing are what we test," says Dr. Emma Humphries at the Bob Graham Center for Public Service at the University of Florida. "Nowhere is this truer than at the elementary level, where teachers report mere minutes devoted to social studies instruction."
Most states require at least one high school semester of American government. Some now require civics instruction earlier. Tennessee and Florida have embedded more civics into their curricula in recent years. In addition, Tennessee's legislature is considering a bill that would make high school students pass a civics test to graduate.
No one has done more to reboot civics than retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. "In 2010, Florida unanimously adopted the Justice Sandra Day O'Connor Civics Education Act to improve civics instruction and assessment," says Humphries. "The act requires that students successfully complete at least one semester of civics for middle school promotion and take an end-of-course examination that constitutes 30 percent of their final grade. Most of Florida's 67 school districts have implemented yearlong civics courses in seventh grade to prepare students for the high-stakes exam."
In 2010, O'Connor founded iCivics.org, a free, interactive website with award-winning games and other digital activities that place students in different civic roles and give them agency to address real-world problems and issues.
"It's a great resource for home or school," says Humphries. "Since its launch, students have played iCivics games 27 million times." (Humphries recommends floridacitizen.org/resources/other for more resources.)
Bill Laraway, a fifth-grade teacher in San Jose, California, encourages parents to use current events to get kids excited about civics.
"There's always something meaty to discuss -- from banning sodas in schools or climate change, to measuring the effectiveness of protest marches," he says. "These talks give kids a chance to polish critical thinking and language skills."
Laraway uses news apps such as NPR, USA Today and CNN to prompt conversation. He also directs parents to age-appropriate discussion guides at CNN Student News, Channel One News, Scholastic News, Newsela and Time For Kids.
Florida congressman Patrick Murphy meets often with students in his district: "A student recently asked about Ben Franklin's advice: 'It is the first responsibility of every citizen to question authority.' I replied that to be an effective citizen, you must first know what citizenship means. It's exciting to see a renewed emphasis on civic education in our schools."
(Do you have a question about your child's education? Email it to Leanna@aplusadvice.com. Leanna Landsmann is an education writer who began her career as a classroom teacher. She has served on education commissions, visited classrooms in 49 states to observe best practices, and founded Principal for a Day in New York City.)