Civic Learning and Engagement Must Become Staples of American Education

Kanter with Students

Under Secretary of Education Martha Kanter chats with students during a school visit in 2012. Official Department of Education photo.

The importance of civic learning and a vision of citizenship and social efficacy must become the staples of every American’s education, shared by higher education, K-12 schools, states and the federal government. In too many schools and on too many college campuses, courses and programs of study about the essence of a democracy and the importance of civic learning are peripheral to the core academic mission.

In late 2012, Under Secretary Martha Kanter had an opportunity to travel across the country visiting with educators and students that understand this challenge. While on the road, Dr. Kanter visited institutions such as Western Kentucky and Wright State, schools that are making strides toward placing civic education, service learning, public dialogue and debate, political participation and community service at the center of their mission to prepare all students for informed, engaged participation in the civic life of our nation.

There were numerous lessons to be learned from the professors, administrators, students and community members at these schools. The experiences they shared reinforced the work the Department of Education is doing through its Civic Learning and Engagement Initiative, and helped to underscore the broader efforts of civic learning advocates across our nation.

You can read more about Dr. Kanter’s trip and the vital importance of civic learning and engagement here.


  1. Let’s not forget Adult Basic Education as an important branch of education that also needs support to focus on civic learning and engagement. Although the “Road Map for Civic Learning and Engagement in Democracy” focuses on secondary and postsecondary educational contexts, World Education, Inc. has worked for years to advance civic literacy and engagement through adult education. Our goal is to build the capacity of adult literacy teachers and learners to take informed action in order to make a positive difference in their lives and communities, and to be engaged members of a democracy.

    World Education has developed and coordinated projects that integrate civics into Adult Basic Education, English for Speakers of other Languages (ESOL) and citizenship curriculum and instruction. Specific projects are captured in our Civic Participation and Community Action Sourcebook.

    For adults, voting is one of our most basic civil rights and responsibilities. Yet, barely one half of voting age adults participated in the last election, and U.S. voting rates are among the lowest of any democracy in the world. The Voter Education, Registration, and Action campaign (VERA) is a non-partisan effort to educate adult learners about voting and current election issues, and to mobilize them to vote. The resources we developed include a website and free access to the “Democracy in Action” issue of The Change Agent magazine.

  2. Civics education inherently involves moral education. It presupposes a set of shared values worthy of replication in all members of society. Such shared values are not “out there” in nature to be discovered through scientific measures, but arise from the worldview held by individuals and groups who each maneuver to protect their own ideas about liberty of conscience. Worldviews, in turn, develop in response to a dizzying array of complex systems of ideas, beliefs, and values regarding the fundamental nature of reality itself. Efforts to impose civics education as a nationwide standard, susceptible to scientific measurement, are very likely to continue to run afoul of the most deeply held convictions of many regarding the widespread shared value of liberty of conscience.

    • As a middle school teacher, education on norms and values must be part of the day to day curriculum for every child. Society and politics have corrupted the core values that keep and build this country. When middle and high school kids are having smoking and having sex in the schools bathrooms. When the hall ways have become a club scene due to the way students dress, something is wrong. Going back to teaching norms, value, self-worth, self-esteem, reputation, decision making, and most of all relationship. Our school system will once again succeed in every level. The problem with most of our students today, is not an education problem rather a social problem.

  3. I find this initiative ironic, since much of the civics and social studies curricula were minimized or omitted with NCLB and its emphasis on reading and math.

    • When Ronald Reagan was president, he cut spending for for civics education for K-12 among his other notable cuts (mental health –’s biting us on the behind now…). I’m a child of the early 60’s K-12 system. We learned about “community helpers” when I was in K-3 by taking field trips to fire stations, libraries, or had police representatives visit. We learned as we got older about how our government worked, would create our own student body groups that interacted with each other and all before high school. A police representative came to our high school to TEACH a two week course on driver’s education. We grew up learning we were a part of something bigger and that it is important to be an informed voter. I volunteered as a Camp Fire Girl and still do today.

      Our children have been led to believe that it’s all about the individual since then (remember “Greed is Good?”) so I don’t understand why so many are surprised about where we are today. Please bring back civics education. Teach children that they are crucial members of their community.

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