Giving Teachers the Tools They Need to Provide 21st-Century Civics Education


Feb 23, 2021

Pro-Trump supporters hold flags as they gather at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, DC, January 6, 2021, photo by Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

Pro-Trump supporters hold flags as they gather at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, DC, January 6, 2021

Photo by Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

Remember 9/11? I do. I was a new writing teacher at New York University at the time and found myself at a complete loss on how to address the event with my students in the city where the shock, fear, rage, sorrow, and anxiety we'd experience in the coming weeks, months, even years, was just beginning to take root. Even though I had a master's in teaching, I had not had any training on how to address a tragic and historic event of that magnitude with students. I did little more than ask my class how they were feeling and whether they wanted to share anything. In the awkward silence that followed, I quickly decided to segue into an unrelated essay-structure activity.

The January 6th insurrection at the Capitol brought me back to the cumbersome quiet of that NYC classroom 20 years ago and a question: Are today's teachers better equipped to address immediate events that will come to shape our history?

The Capitol attack has rightly led to many calls for teachers to address civic education in a much more robust way in their classrooms. However, a recent EdWeek survey indicated that nearly three-quarters of U.S. teachers have not addressed the Capitol insurrection at all with their students. Our own nationally representative survey with social studies teachers—who might be most likely to address civic education in the classroom—suggests that teachers lack the training and resources that lay the foundation for them to be prepared to address such events, and students' civic development more broadly.

In our survey, we asked teachers about a range of civic development instructional practices that they might bring into their classroom instruction, from discussion of current and controversial events to media literacy.

Teachers lack the training and instructional resources to support students' civic development.

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Our findings painted a concerning picture about K–12 teachers' capacity to address civic education:

  • Teachers lack the training and instructional resources to support students' civic development. Roughly half of all elementary school social studies teachers (who typically teach all subjects) and between 30 and 40 percent of secondary social studies teachers had not received any teacher preparation or in-service training on how to support students' civic development. In addition, more than half of all teachers we surveyed reported a need for better instructional materials to teach civic education, including those that meet the needs of diverse populations of students.
  • Pressure to address tested subjects reduces time on civic education. Nearly three-quarters of elementary teachers and 40 percent of secondary social studies teachers indicated the pressure to cover English and math content was an obstacle to supporting their students' civic development. This pressure is bound to worsen as calls to help students catch up in tested subjects mount as a result of the pandemic.

I am appreciative of all the teaching resources that the internet now provides to support teachers—including the generous wave of posted resources and suggested lesson plans from many corners following the events of January 6th. Yet our research suggests a more systemic approach to expanding civic education is necessary. A first step toward that would be to make civic education a priority in state education standards and requirements. For example, only 14 states had media literacy education requirements for schools as of January 2020 (PDF). New work by my colleagues at RAND and elsewhere to better define critical media literacy standards for the 21st century could lead to more uptake and focus on media literacy, as one aspect of civic education. And while we know that teachers in states with required social studies tests spend more instructional time on social studies (PDF) topics in the classroom, only 17 states require a civics exam for graduation.

A second critical step would be to ensure that teachers have good instructional resources aligned with civic development standards. A lesson on the Capitol attack is a good start. But teachers need comprehensive curricula where knowledge is built lesson by lesson to develop the range of civic knowledge, skills, and dispositions students need. Teachers also need to be able to exercise flexibility in use of those materials to meet a variety of student needs for civic development, given diverse contexts in which teachers provide instruction and diverse student experiences. Some of this work has already begun: Several organizations have banded together to develop a “cyber citizenship portal,” a database that will be intended to pull together a variety of instructional materials to support civics education. Emerging projects like these are a cue for curriculum developers to put together comprehensive and meaningful civics materials for the 21st century and beyond.

Julia H. Kaufman is a senior policy researcher and codirects the American Educator Panels at the RAND Corporation.