IT'S STANDING room only in the fourth-floor hearing room in California's state capitol. The packed gallery is hushed. Five individuals in dark suits sit at a long table in front of a three-judge panel. The judges pepper them with tough questions, but these witnesses' answers are complete, succinct, and utterly convincing. When the grilling ends, the gallery erupts in applause.
No one clamors for order because this is not just another hearing in Sacramento. The "witnesses" are high school seniors, and the "hearing" is part of an academic competition testing students' knowledge of the Constitution and other founding documents at the We the People state finals.
We the People: The Citizen and the Constitution is a core civics curriculum developed by the Center for Civic Education for fourth- through 12th-grade students. It is designed to teach students about their constitutional heritage so that they will become knowledgeable, thoughtful citizens of our democracy, and it does so in a way that is engaging and exciting.
The California finalists' enthusiasm bears witness. Usually this degree of excitement among high school students is associated with annual athletic tournaments. But this is State with a capital S. The students have come to Sacramento in February from across California, some 350 high-schoolers (mostly seniors), along with their teachers and coaches and many of their parents. They represent 12 schools, all regional winners, from communities large and small, wealthy and poor. The class of 15 students that takes first place at State will join winning classes from the other 49 states and the District of Columbia--nearly 1,200 students in all--when the national finals take place in Washington, D.C., in April. This annual sequence of hearings and competitions has been going on for 20 years.
For these students in these schools, civic education is alive and thriving. This isn't universally true across the country. But civic education is making a comeback. It's returning from a wilderness also populated by the arts, social studies in general, physical education, and all of the other subjects that fall outside the narrow national focus prescribed by No Child Left Behind, subjects that once were deemed vital for a well-rounded, dare I use the term "liberal," education. As prominent civic education scholar Margaret Stimmann Branson recently commented, "Although No Child Left Behind legislation speaks of 'core learning,' only reading and mathematics are used as measures of schools' success. Science is a poor third. And civic education is forgotten."(1)
THE DECLINE OF CIVIC EDUCATION
Truth be told, civic education began wandering in the curricular wilderness in the 1960s, when, according to Center for Civic Education Executive Director Charles Quigley, "Vietnam and then Watergate brought disenchantment, rebellion, experimentation, a loss of faith in traditional institutions and traditional leaders, the breakup of consensus, the weakening of the core culture," and ultimately the erosion of curricular requirements in civic education.(2) In 1990 the National Assessment of Educational Progress "Report Card in Civics" concluded that America's students had only a superficial knowledge of civics. But it wasn't until the late 1990s that many educators began to take notice.
In 2002 the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE), in partnership with the Carnegie Corporation of New York, convened a series of meetings involving leading scholars and civic education practitioners to consider the current state of young people's civic learning and engagement. The participants' conclusions and recommendations were summarized in a 2003 report titled The Civic Mission of Schools. The authors stated the matter bluntly: "School-based civic education is in decline."(3)
"The movement for high-stakes testing," the authors wrote, "has had a huge impact on education nationally: schools are under unprecedented pressure to raise student achievement, which is now measured by standardized examinations of reading and mathematics. …