Civic education is the primary way our citizens acquire the knowledge and skills necessary for informed and engaged citizenship. While many institutions, such as the family, the church and social organizations, help forge a person’s civic character and propensity to participate, civic education in the schools is the one common experience American citizens share that helps them acquire and learn to use the skills, knowledge and attitudes that prepare them to be competent and responsible citizens throughout their lives.
This is the historic civic mission of schools — a mission considered so important by those who established a free, universal system of public education in the United States that they identified civic education as one of the central purposes of education.
Unfortunately, as the indicators of civic engagement in our nation are dropping, so, too, is the amount of time and attention devoted to civic education in our schools. Without improving the quality and quantity of civic education, we cannot expect that young people will grow up to become informed, capable and engaged voters.
All the Center for Civic Education’s K — 12 curricular programs focus upon students’ acquisition of the civic knowledge, skills and dispositions necessary for competent and responsible citizenship.
• The We the People: The Citizen and the Constitution program is nationally acclaimed and focuses on the history and principles of the U.S. Constitution. A 2001 survey of We the People alumni revealed that they are better informed and participate at higher rates than their peers. The data suggest that voting rates are significantly higher among alumni than nonparticipating peers surveyed in the 2000 American National Election Study. Eighty-two percent of We the People alumni voted in November 2000, in contrast to a 48 percent turnout by peers. (For more information on the research of the Center’s programs, visit www.civiced.org/research.)
• The Project Citizen program complements the We the People program by helping students learn how to monitor and influence public policy at the local and state government level. Students research a public policy problem in their community, evaluate alternative solutions, develop their own solutions in the form of a public policy, and create a political action plan to convince government officials to adopt their proposed policies. Through the Project Citizen program, which is used in more than 70 other countries, students have influenced laws throughout the nation, learning how to have a voice in government.
• The Citizens, Not Spectators program focuses on ensuring that young people acquire the information and experience they need to be competent and responsible voters. The goal of Citizens, Not Spectators is to increase the voting rate among young Americans by providing engaging voter education to students in fourth to 12th grades. To accomplish this goal, the curriculum demystifies the voting process by teaching elementary, middle and high school students how to cast a vote, how the voting process works, how to become an informed voter and why it is important to cast an informed vote.
The curriculum focuses on hands-on, active learning. Using actual voter registration forms and ballots, students receive instruction in how to register and cast a vote in a simulated election. Citizens, Not Spectators can be taught at any time, but is most effective when the course culminates around the time of an actual federal, state or local election.
Participation in this curriculum helps a new generation become active, informed, and engaged citizens prepared to take part in the electoral process. Citizens, Not Spectators was developed through a cooperative effort by the Center for Civic Education and the Arsalyn Program of the Ludwick Family Foundation.
• The Center’s Foundations of Democracy series, used in more than 40 countries, consists of curricular materials for use with students from kindergarten through 12th grade on four concepts fundamental to an understanding of politics and government: Authority, Privacy, Responsibility and Justice. This multidisciplinary curriculum draws upon such fields as political philosophy, political science, law, history, literature and environmental studies. The Authority curriculum is especially appropriate in giving students the background required to make good decisions. It helps students distinguish between legitimate authority and power, and learn how to choose people for leadership positions. Students analyze the benefits and costs of authority, and evaluate and take and defend positions on the proper scope and limits of authority.
The Center for Civic Education is a nonprofit, nonpartisan educational organization dedicated to promoting an enlightened and responsible citizenry committed to democratic principles and actively engaged in the practice of democracy in the United States and other countries.
The principal goals of the Center’s programs are to help students develop (1) an increased understanding of the institutions of American constitutional democracy and the fundamental principles and values upon which they are founded, (2) the skills necessary to participate as competent and responsible citizens, and (3) the willingness to use democratic procedures for making decisions and managing conflict. To learn more about the Center and its programs, visit www.civiced.org.
Voting, and doing so in an informed and thoughtful way, is a fundamental right and responsibility of citizens. But voting during elections is not enough. It is also necessary to keep up-to-date on current events, monitor and attempt to influence public policy, keep our elected officials informed and accountable, and take part in the political and civic life of the community.
• Charles N. Quigley is executive director of the Center for Civic Education.