To participate in civic life, young people need skills and knowledge. Since the 1970’s, changes in the political environment and the ways we communicate and problem-solve together (especially using technology) have added new forms of knowledge and skills that are useful for effective participation. CIRCLE’s 2010 report entitled “Civic Skills and Federal Policy” lists some of the skills that seem most important today. Young people learn such skills and knowledge from various people and institutions, including their families, community-based organizations, and schools and colleges institutions.
K-12 institutions have the largest reach, in terms of the number of youth they can impact. Civic education can occur in many subjects, but social studies courses are particularly valuable opportunities to learn civic knowledge and skills. Our recent scan of civic and social studies standards and requirements* shows that all states have social studies standards, and in many states, the standards include advanced civic skills that are directly relevant to participation in politics and community affairs. For instance, 42 states have standards that we coded as “real-world application” of civic knowledge, and 41 have standards that we coded as “civic skills, such as communication, deliberation, or collective decision-making.”
However, these standards are not connected to tests or other assessments. Even the relatively few states that require civics tests use multiple-choice exams that cannot assess advanced skills. Likewise, most national surveys (e.g., the Census Current Population Survey, or the National Conference on Citizenship’s Civic Health Index Survey) assess civic knowledge using concrete factual items like these:
- Who decides whether a law is constitutional?
- What percent of the house and senate is necessary to override a veto?
- Under the US Constitution, the power to tax belongs to the _____?
Although the information tested above is important, we’ve found from previous research that low-income, urban youth learn different ideas and skills from daily experience in their own communities. In some instances, young people derive lessons from daily experience that contrast with the messages taught in social studies and civics class. They may be taught, for example, that all citizens are equal under the law, yet experience a very different reality.
Because youth come to politics with diverse experiences, they may not all need the same skills and knowledge to participate effectively. But in designing curricula, requirements, standards, surveys, and tests, it is important to ask what skills and knowledge they really need.
*This work was made possible by funding from the S. D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation.