Proposed changes to the U.S. citizenship exam have renewed the question of how many natural-born American citizens could pass this basic civics test. The troubling answer is that one in three can’t. Healthy democracy requires not only popular participation but an understanding of who we are, where we came from, and how and why our system of government functions the way it does.
For years, I, along with other former Secretaries of Education, have called for a national renewal of civics education to provide our citizenry with the knowledge and critical thinking skills necessary to engage in our democracy in a meaningful and constructive way.
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Unfortunately, recent educational assessment data warns that we’re moving in the wrong direction.
In May, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), released the “nation’s report card” for civics education. For the first time since 1998 – the year the federal government began testing eighth-grade students for civics acumen – scores declined. Nearly 80% of students, the results reveal, are not proficient in civics – a jaw-dropping statistic for anyone concerned with America’s staying power. The need for creative approaches to civics education could not be more urgent.
Thankfully, there’s an exciting new model for renewing interest in civics by making it fun.
Last month, middle school students from across Texas assembled at the George W. Bush Presidential Center in Dallas hoping to stake their claim as the state’s first-ever National Civics Bee champion. These students wrote an essay about a community issue, prepared for months and were first victorious at regional competitions held this spring throughout Texas, organized by local chambers of commerce.
These events aren’t unique to Texas. In fact, the idea to launch these competitions sprang from an innovative partnership between the Daniels Fund – a private charitable organization based in Denver, Colorado – and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation in Washington, D.C. More than 50 communities in nine states held their own National Civics Bee competition this year, and the plan is to supersize this approach to civic engagement by expanding to several more states in 2024.
Big problems demand bold solutions, and philanthropic organizations are uniquely suited to tackle the challenge of civics education – one which government intervention risks politicizing. Voluntary associations like the partnership between the U.S. Chamber Foundation and the Daniels Fund can move swiftly to solve a community problem that benefits everyone.
Civics can’t be an afterthought if American democracy is to endure. Hanna Skandera, president of the Daniels Fund, remarked at the recent Texas competition that “from the very beginning, the founders of our country understood that for the American form of government to thrive, its citizens would need to be informed and engaged in our processes.” No doubt. In fact, her organization and the U.S. Chamber Foundation are making a major bet that this unique approach to civics education can catch fire. But they can’t do it alone.
Here’s how you can help: If you’re an elected official, step up to be a judge at a local or state competition. Inspire your local chamber to host a local competition. If you’re a business, coordinate with your local chamber to help sponsor and facilitate these important events. As a parent, take a proactive role in encouraging your son or daughter to participate in next year’s competition.
Our democracy has undergone a number of stress tests in recent years, and there will be more to come. By renewing interest in history and civics among our students, families, and businesses, we can equip all Americans with the knowledge and resources needed to bridge our divides. America’s future depends on all of us doing our part to ensure its vibrancy and endurance, and the National Civics Bee is a wonderful and worthy experiment on which to build.