Wall Street Journal Op-ed: Teaching Better Civics for Better Citizens (Abstract)

May 18, 2015

American students are alarmingly unfamiliar with the essential elements of democracy.


By Sandra Day O'Connor and John Glenn

(originally posted at the Wall Street Journal, May 12th, 2015 at 7:03pm EST)


The results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), released last week, revealed that our country’s eighth-graders aren’t just failing at civics and history. They fundamentally do not understand our democratic system of government, and have shown no significant sign of progress since they were last tested in 2010.

The scores from the test known as the Nation’s Report Card show that only 18% of the students are proficient in history, and less than a quarter are proficient in civics. For example, fewer than one-third of students tested knew that “the government of the United States should be a democracy” is a political belief shared by most people in this country.

Education policy leaders have correctly recognized the importance of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) to prepare children for the jobs of the future, and to enable the U.S. to compete in the 21st-century marketplace. The NAEP tells us that if schools ignore civics and social studies, they risk excluding students forever from American democracy. While we fully support the vast resources committed to promote STEM subjects, we seriously question the cost of doing so at the expense of the humanities.

Civic education cannot be an afterthought. Citizenship is a skill that must be taught over time with the same devotion we give to reading, math and the pursuit of scientific knowledge. We believe that it should be taught alongside and integrated with these subjects.

More civics courses alone is not the answer. Civics education itself needs an overhaul that makes it relevant to digital learners. This is why we have joined forces to create games and digital content that meet students where they are—online and gaming—and help them create a sort of “muscle memory” for citizenship. We want to give students an immersive civic-education experience that inspires them to learn how to use the legal system, the legislature and the electoral process to solve problems in their communities and effectively communicate with their government.

As the next election nears, it’s not enough to have young people read about elections in history books. Digital games such as “Win the White House,” a product of the Web-based nonprofit education project founded by Justice O’Connor, put students inside a virtual election. They can learn how to navigate the process and experience its complexities in a way that is fun and engaging and on their terms.

Nationally, more than 72,000 teachers have created accounts with iCivics, giving digital civic education to more than 7.5 million students. It is now used by more than half the nation’s middle-school social-studies teachers, and that is cause for celebration. The question is how to reach the other half.

This month we are launching iCivics Ohio, a partnership between the John Glenn College at Ohio State University, the Capitol Square Foundation and Justice O’Connor’s iCivics. The partnership could give to every student in Ohio access to state-of-the-art digital civic-education experiences—from iCivics.org and other resources—that include state-specific curricula and lesson plans specifically for Ohio teachers. We hope that every other state will consider similar opportunities.

We know what works in civic education. The Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools’ Six Proven Practices provides a blueprint that every state can adapt to fit its own curricula. The practices include: classroom instruction, discussion of current events and controversial issues, service-learning, extra-curricular activities, school governance and simulations of government processes.

Citizenship begins long before students can vote. Civic education will help them exercise their vote, and participate in our democracy, in an informed manner. The NAEP results indicate that it’s not the students who are failing to learn, but we who are failing to teach them.

Ms. O’Connor, a retired U.S. Supreme Court justice, is the founder of iCivics, a nonprofit company producing digital civics curriculum for schools. Mr. Glenn is a former astronaut and former Democratic U.S. senator from Ohio (1974-99).