The U.S. Constitution Needs, Deserves More than One Day In the Classroom

Posted by on September 16, 2013 in Blog, featured | Comments Off

By Paul Baumann

In all likelihood, if you are the parent of a school- or college-aged child, your son or daughter will be studying the U.S. Constitution today, Sept. 17. Federal law mandates that every educational institution in the country that receives any federal funding provide students with educational programming on the history of the Constitution on one day each year. That day—today—is Constitution Day, when we mark the anniversary of the signing of the U.S. Constitution. (For those of you counting, the Constitution turns 226 this year.)

While this charge from the federal government is noble, we must also ask: Is it sufficient for preparing the next generation of U.S. citizens to sustain our democracy?

I don’t think that any of us would agree that one day each year is sufficient to prepare students for citizenship. In fact, I’d wager that most of us agree that becoming an informed and engaged citizen takes practice—over time. A well-developed curriculum in civics and citizenship, delivered throughout all of students’ schooling, is necessary to prepare students for civic life.

Aside from the mandate mentioned above, however, federal policy provides little guidance on civic education. In fact, most policy related to civic education—as is the case for most education policy—emanates from state government. For this reason, our nation has 50-plus sets of requirements on what schools should be doing to prepare students for citizenship and civic life.

The organization I work for, the Education Commission of the States (ECS), and the center I direct, the National Center for Learning and Civic Engagement, set out every couple of years to conduct a scan of state policy on civic education. Our latest scan—released today—shows that while we have a suitable foundation for civic education established in most states, overall, we have yet to put in place robust state policy necessary to support high quality civic learning opportunities for all students. Take, for instance, the following findings:

  • Civics, Citizenship Education, or Social Studies are included in state standards in all states and the District of Columbia.
  • Civics or Citizenship Education is included as a high school graduation requirement in all states and the District of Columbia.
  • Only nine states (AR, FL, MS, MO, NC, OR, TN, TE, WA) conduct any student assessments in civics, and only four states (FL, HI, NC, VA) include civics in their accountability systems.

Overall, while we do a pretty good job of saying that students should learn how to be a citizen, we do a pretty abysmal job at measuring and ensuring student learning in this area. Because most states do not “check-in” on students’ civic learning, many schools and districts allow civic education to be pushed aside in favor of other subjects for which they are held accountable.

When thinking of what high-quality civic learning looks like, we must take into account that the civic life for which we are preparing students requires much more than knowledge. Unlike some other school subjects, becoming a citizen requires that students develop their civic knowledge, skills, and disposition.

That is, while we want students to know how government works, we also want them to have the capacity to “do” citizenship well, and the inclination to get involved in their communities, nation, and world. Thus, how we think about civic education should differ somewhat from how we think about other school subjects because the nature of civic learning is somewhat unique.

The National Council for the Social Studies, the nation’s professional organization for social studies teachers, has recognized the unique nature of civic learning in its College, Career, and Civic Life (3C) Framework for Social Studies State Standards, which it released today. Rather than including a laundry list of discrete facts, as do many other standards, the 3C Framework is grounded in the concepts, skills, and disciplinary tools that students need for civic learning. Rather than having students learn about civics and citizenship, the 3C Framework promotes the notion that students need to become citizens.

Over the coming months, the NCSS will be asking states to adopt the 3C Framework. Regardless as to whether or not your state adopts it, this framework provides sorely needed guidance for all states on how to go about preparing students for civic life.

When your child returns home from school today, be sure to ask her what she learned about the Constitution and citizenship. Ask her the same question tomorrow. And the next day. And the next day. If she has new knowledge to share, be sure to discuss it with her. If she says that she hasn’t really learned much about that at school, call your child’s school and ask why. Then call your state representative and state senator, and ask them to help ensure high-quality civic learning opportunities for all students in your state.

Paul Baumann is the director of the National Center for Learning and Civic Engagement (NCLCE). He can be reached at

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