As new report laments state of civics education, business groups look to respond

A new report from the Goldwater Institute says that civics education in Arizona needs improvement and that students are graduating without the necessary understanding of the principles of American government.

Investigating the state’s social studies standards as well as the civic knowledge of graduating students, the report’s authors conclude that not only are students graduating without an understanding of American government and the principles that underlie it, but that too much curriculum is being presented through an “activist” lens.

Current standards teach little about federalism, an underpinning philosophy of the American system of government. “Despite being one of the central organizing principles of the American constitutional framework,” the report reads, “the term federalism makes no appearance in the Arizona high school standards.” 

Additionally, the standards exclude any specific mention of “enumerated rights,” and the subsequent notion that one’s rights are only secured by governments, not granted by them.

On top of the exclusion of these foundational principles of American government, the standards omit any requirement for students to learn about Abraham Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation, and a full history of race and slavery in the United States. 

Lastly, the standards embrace an “action civics” that “deemphasizes civic literacy and instead encourages students to identify and advocate for public policies in their city, state, or nation.”

“The result of such pedagogy—particularly when students lack basic civic literacy to inform their energies,” argue the report’s authors, “is to thrust young kids into public life without educating them on the nation they are supposedly meant to change.”

For nearly a decade, Arizona leaders have focused on improving the state’s civics education. In 2015, the first bill signed by then-Gov. Doug Ducey (R) made it mandatory for all Arizona students to pass a 100-question civics test in order to graduate. 

Ducey also signed legislation sponsored by Rep. Quang Nguyen (R-Prescott Valley), expanding civics instruction on the differences between American republicanism and capitalism and other competing ideologies like fascism and communism, as well as a bill sponsored by Rep. Alma Hernandez (D-Tucson) mandating Holocaust education for K-12 students.

Despite these accomplishments, the report says that many of these reforms have yet to be implemented in state classrooms. The report finds that statewide standards are much more like guides rather than mandates.

U.S. Chamber Foundation bringing business lens to civics

The U.S. Chamber Foundation is assessing the nationwide state of civics education with its Civics Forward Initiative. 

In “The Business Case for Civics Education,” a paper commissioned by the foundation and authored by the Harvard Business Review, the authors found that according to a 2019 survey by the Annenberg Public Policy Center only 39% of Americans could identify the three branches of government. 

“Many people do not know how our government works, which leads to confusion on political outcomes and, ultimately, distrust in the system,” Allstate Chairman and CEO Tom Wilson said.

Proponents of improved civic education say the business community should care about the state of civics education because of the connection between civics and a thriving workplace.

The paper cites a report from the Annenberg Institute for Civics and the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools, which says, “There is considerable overlap between the skills acquired as part of civic learning and the skills required in employment. So, students receiving high-quality civic learning score higher on a broad range of 21st-century competencies than those without.”

There’s also a strong link between civics and a strong economy.

“Typically, GDP is highest in countries that have the most stable political systems. So it’s important never to take our political system for granted, and that means—among many other things—we need to ensure strong civics programs in our schools,” says David A. Moss, the Paul Whiton Cherinton Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School.
The U.S. Chamber Foundation is the sponsor of the National Civics Bee for 6th-, 7th- and 8th-graders to demonstrate their civics knowledge. The third edition will take place in 2024

Joe Pitts

Joe Pitts is a born and bred Arizonan who formerly served as the program director at the Arizona Chamber Foundation. He graduated Arizona State University's Barrett, the Honors College in 2023 with a B.S. in Management and concurrent B.S. in Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership.

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