Civic Learning: Renewing Our Sense of Who We Are

“Education is more than just book knowledge. It’s about how we engage in a vibrant democracy,” Secretary Duncan said yesterday afternoon at the White House. Duncan joined Obama Administration officials and education leaders at the launch of a national conversation about the importance of advancing civic learning from grade school to graduate school.

U.S. Capitol

Image courtesy of the Architect of the Capitol

Under Secretary of Education Martha Kanter noted that “it’s time to renew our sense of who we are and what we stand for.” Kanter explained that the benefits of civic learning range from “instilling civic knowledge, skills, and dispositions, and promoting civic equality, to building 21st century competencies, along with helping to improve school climate, engage students in learning, and lower the dropout rate.”

In conjunction with today’s event, ED released the report “Civic Learning and Engagement in Democracy: A Road Map and Call to Action.” The report says that while America’s democratic ideals remain a model for the world, civic knowledge and democratic participation in the U.S. are lacking. The Road Map points to a 2010 report that shows less than 30 percent of 4th, 8th, and 12th graders were proficient in civics.

The Road Map highlights nine steps that ED will take to advance civic learning and democratic engagement, including promoting public service internships and careers, leveraging federal programs and public-private partnerships, and adding civic indicators to national student surveys.

Visit to read the full set of ED’s commitment, the entire Road Map, and for additional civic learning resources.

Click here to watch the video of the forum.


  1. It is admirable that so much attention is, rightly, being focused on civic literacy in schools, but there is an essential missing piece: Freeing students to be actual participants in the dialogue. Censorship of student voices is a pervasive problem, and it is one of the leading causes of “civic disconnect.” When students experience the First Amendment like the good china that sits on the top shelf and is taken out only for the grown-ups — and when students see school administrators get away with blatant acts of censorship unpunished — it is like flipping the civic engagement “off” switch. Justice O’Connor’s Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools emphasizes the need for students to have a meaningful voice in the governance of their schools — and yet student criticism of school policies is too often silenced under threat of punishment. Schools regularly confiscate newspapers, and fire excellent journalism teachers, over nothing more than honest discussion of the school’s shortcomings. Worse, schools are now asserting the authority to regulate what young people — including college-age adults — say off-campus on the Web. The single greatest step that the Administration could take to promote youth civic engagement is to support legislation like that already on the books in Arkansas, California, Colorado, Iowa, Kansas, Massachusetts and Oregon that reverses the noxious effects of the Supreme Court’s 1988 Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier decision and restores a sane balance to the regulation of student expression. Just fixing the curriculum will make no difference as long as school administrators are trained to view students’ First Amendment expression as a problem to be minimized.

  2. When the roadmap of pedagogy constantly changes and the changes are narrowly focused on a standardized buzz-course of the moment, schooling becomes driven by exclusions rather than inclusions. Where is the rationale in punitive tactives of teaching reading and math to the extent that all other subjects are placed on a back burner? What will happen to the race to the top to meet these mandates if the teaching of government and civics comes back into a student’s learning experience? Student engagement assumes a level of indivuality on both the student’s and the teacher’s part. How can this happened when assessments are based in standardized mandates? Yes, civic knowledge and democratic engagement are important. What mandates reduced this importance? Earlier this year Secretary Duncan declared the importance of creativity and innovative thinking. Health comes up as a major concern when it is convenient. Yet, these courses are minimized or entirely dropped, and the focus remains on those classes that engage educational stake-holders in a competition to receive sacred funding based on standardized assessments in reading and math. Perhaps the answer is to return curricula design to those who have been schooled in the understanding of the art of teaching.

    • I think your final point, Jill, summarizes what is really needed in American education. I’m very glad to hear that we have recognized the deficiencies in civics education. The same is true for arts education which has suffered massive cuts over the last 20 years of public education and as an adult educator at a community college, I can see the detrimental effects on critical thinking and problem solving that are fostered and nurtured in arts education. Furthermore, according to the National Endowment for the Arts research, those adults who are engaged in the arts, either as a creator or as a participator, are more likely to vote or participate in community activities and volunteerism. Many educators would agree a holistic approach to education has many long term positive effects.

    • Thank you Jill and Kris for your comments. We appreciate the feedback.

      Cameron Brenchley
      Office of Communications and Outreach

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