The recent dismal civics and history results from the Nation’s Report Card put American democracy at risk. Eighth-graders recorded their lowest scores ever in U.S. history and the first decline in civics scores. The decreases were most dramatic for lower-performing students. Just under half of eighth-graders report taking a class primarily focused on civics, and fewer than one-third have a teacher whose primary responsibility is teaching civics. School accountability policies that emphasize reading and math scores have led to less time spent on other essential subjects.
To counter this unproductive narrowing of the curriculum, states should embed civic content into statewide reading assessments. This simple change would incentivize more attention to civic learning while making reading tests more engaging, equitable and accurate.
Just 6 percent of American middle schoolers can read an excerpt from Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech and identify two ideas from the Constitution or Declaration of Independence that King might have been referring to. This is a symptom of the atrophy in the civic mission of schools that represents a grave danger to American democracy. Only 30 percent of millennials think a democratic government is essential, compared with 70 percent of Americans born before World War II. Most millennials say that if Russia invaded the United States, they would not fight to defend our country. These data are a wake-up call that the nation needs to recommit public schools to their foundational purpose: preparing young Americans for citizenship.