Creating a Generation of Future Civic Leaders

June 28, 2024  

  • Congressional Reform
  • Blog

Knowledgeable and engaged citizenship ensures a strong and resilient democracy.  But what happens when the nation’s future leaders are ill-informed about the US government?  An apparent lack of civic education in today’s schools means that young people are not well prepared to take up the mantle of public service leaving the future of our democracy in a somewhat fragile and vulnerable state.  We need to address this deficiency. 

Influence of Civics Education on Democracy  

“Without an understanding of the structure of government, our rights and responsibilities, and the different methods of public engagement,” according to the American Federation of Teachers, “civic literacy and voter apathy will continue to plague American democracy.”  According to the Nation’s Report Card Civics Assessment, civics scores among students have hovered at the “basic proficiency” level since 1998.  Despite the great upheaval in the political system since then, the flat scores suggest an indifference towards civics education that has occurred over the past 25 years. 

This is bad for democracy.  Without proper training in civics, students lack an appreciation for American government and the role it plays in their lives.  Many of our basic freedoms and liberties are taken for granted.  Young people are disconnected from civic participation as leaders, volunteers, and social entrepreneurs.  And rampant polarization replaces the principles of debate and dialogue that have shaped US democracy for nearly 250 years. 

Recently attention has focused on flawed and outdated methods for teaching civics and government.  Classes emphasize textbook reading, memorization, lectures, and testing; more dynamic and interactive strategies that teach critical thinking are rarely taught.  As an indicator that current approaches are out-of-step, more than half of all Americans cannot name all three branches of government according to an Annenberg Public Policy poll. 

Meeting the Challenge of Civics Education 

Using Legis1, the Sunwater Institute’s innovative legislative platform, the picture becomes even more clear.  While several measures have been proposed in Congress, the passage of the modest American History and Civics Education Act in 2004 is the only major legislative outcome on a national level in the last 25 years.  Members of Congress often tout the importance of civics education across their communications channels, but in fact there is very little ongoing dialogue in Congress about improving the state of civics education in the US.  More substantive action is required. 

The development of plug-and-play style curricula will also help teachers navigate the subject of civics in classrooms.  Students and teachers can benefit from mentoring and civic engagement opportunities at the local level.  And of course, more private investment and philanthropic funding for the public education sector will support the development of a modern form of civics education.  (Currently, the US government spends only 5 cents per student on civics education as compared to $50 per student on STEM education.) 

Legis1: A data-driven resource for educators 

What is typically missing from these approaches is access to reliable tools and nonpartisan resources that provide insight into how government functions.  This is especially true regarding the structure, responsibilities, and powers of the legislative branch.  Few educational resources teach the real-world process of lawmaking from all angles.   

The Sunwater Institute has developed Legis1 as a data, analytic, and educational platform for exploring what is happening in Congress and driving understanding about how citizens can affect lawmaking.  Teachers and students are a key audience in that Legis1 uniquely shows how legislation is conceived, debated, and passed in Congress through dashboards, visual aids, and access to primary sources.  The platform also includes a “drafter’s desk reference tool” that can take students through a step-by-step process of writing a law. 

It will take significant investment, coalition building, and political muscle to improve civics education.  The Sunwater Institute’s Legis1 is only one tool, but it is a significant step in creating a deep-dive resource for educators about civics education that stimulates and guides more interactive forms of learning.  Our democracy depends on methods like these to prepare young people to become our nation’s future lawmakers and civic leaders. 

 

If you are ready for a demo this summer break or during recess just fill out a quick form or book time here. 

 

 

Additional reading 

Educating for American Democracy 

Lack of Quality Civic Education in Public Schools in the United States