Over the past few decades, our nation has undergone a significant decline in the provision of civics education. We downshifted from delivering three courses in civics to most high school students in the mid-20th century to now delivering one single-semester course to approximately 85 percent of students, as Michael Rebell points out in his recent book “Flunking Democracy.” He also reports that by four years after the implementation of No Child Left Behind, a meaningful percentage of school districts had reduced social-studies instruction to devote more time to English and math (33 percent in a nationally representative sample of 299 districts). Statewide skills tests that focus on math and English language arts, important as those subjects are, give schools no incentive to invest in civics instruction.
The shift has been most significant for low-income students in low-resourced schools. As a 2017 report from the Education Commission of the States puts it, “Urban schools with low-income, diverse students provide fewer and lower-quality civic opportunities and affluent white students are twice as likely as those of average socioeconomic status to study the legislative process or participate in service activities and 150 percent more likely to do in-class debates.”
The results of our disinvestment in civics education appear stark. Only about 30 percent of U.S. millennials consider it “essential” to live in a democracy, while 72 percent of Americans born before World War II do, according to political scientists Roberto Stefan Foa and Yascha Mounk in “The Democratic Disconnect.”