The question about how well we teach civics in school pops up in the aftermath of every election season. Yet the conversation in the aftermath of the 2016 election was especially active, sparked by an unconventional candidate who conducted an unconventional—and successful—campaign.

Your old Foundations of Education textbook would remind you that Horace Mann launched the creation of public schools, or “common schools,” in the 1830s, primarily to prepare the American populace for active participation in their democracy. He often declared that public schools alone—more than any other institution—have the ability and responsibility to prepare students for their responsibilities of citizenship. I think we can agree, though, that our explicit commitment to that responsibility has ebbed and flowed during the past two centuries.

Today’s emphasis on college and career readiness makes it easy for schools to place civics on the back burner, which is likely why only 5 percent of schools offer AP Government and Politics and only 16 states factor civics learning into their accountability systems. Fortunately, the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools provides a series of “proven practices” that allows schools to incorporate civics:

  • Incorporate discussion of current local, national, and international issues and events into the classroom. When young people have opportunities to discuss current issues in a classroom setting, they tend to have a greater interest in politics, improved critical thinking and communications skills, more civic knowledge, and more interest in discussing public affairs outside of school.
  • Design and implement programs that provide students with the opportunity to apply what they learn through performing community service that is linked to classroom instruction. These programs will develop engaged citizens.
  • Encourage student participation in school governance. Research suggests that giving students more opportunities to participate in the management of their classrooms and schools builds their civic skills and attitudes.

NASSP’s commitment to student civic engagement is the reason we incorporate the National Association of Student Councils and the National Honor Societies into our school offerings. These programs provide ready-made platforms for the activities essential to civic learning. With the presidential election now months behind us, I encourage you to bring civics education to the forefront and anticipate the preparation students will need to be active participants next year, in 2020, and well beyond.

JoAnn Bartoletti 
Executive Director, NASSP