Brief # 55 Education Policy

Democratic Education and Practice

By Emily Carty

March 1, 2021


Schools are an ideal place to plant the seeds of democracy and cultivate a culture of learning, participation, and will to be informed and take action for one’s rights and ideals. Commentary from a recent Brookings Institute article contrasts the emphasis placed on preparing kids for a modern economy with the lack of resources to prepare kids for a modern democracy. Citing the constant criticisms of schools being unable to prepare graduates for the job market or college, the author notes that a demand for prepared, active citizens is lacking. Conservatives and progressives have their respective fears about civic education in schools — will it be propaganda, whitewashed history, or activist training to make major changes to our country? While those concerns do have their place, no one can deny that basic education around the political process, civil rights, and modern media literacy is much needed in this country.

Historically, initial debates in states around the purpose of public education have demonstrated that the priority was placed on civics — preparing kids to protect and defend their rights was put ahead of other necessary things like building a workforce. However that focus has since disappeared as our country’s educational mission become focused on building a modern-day  technology and science-based workforce. The George W. Bush era’s No Child Left Behind (NCLB) act encouraged schools to place a greater concentration on math and language arts to keep up with the rapidly developing economy — it left civics and the modernization of democracy behind.

The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) passed in 2015 as a replacement for the NCLB act. It aims to place a greater emphasis on civics education in schools and provide equitable, well rounded education. The ESSA, which has funding through 2021, has several major funding goals, including setting educational civics education standards, and assuring  state accountability for student performance It is the primary policy setting the agenda for civics education.

Researchers informing the act found that students from low-income families and schools were less likely to receive robust civics education, as schools were prioritizing math and language arts — the subjects that made up standardized tests. They also found that better civics education had an impact on student success rates, academic and non-academic, as well as young adults’ perception of the importance of democratic society. Thus, the ESSA has aimed to provide better funding for low-income schools to implement and support civics learning and to support all schools in requiring civics education in their curriculum and testing. The format and content of civics education however, is left up to states and local education agencies.

As funding for ESSA comes to an end, legislators and families across the nation have the chance to advocate for updated legislation that addresses our nation’s disillusion with democracy (as evidenced by the January insurrection).


The inattention to teachingn democracy in schools had a turning point with the passage of the 2015 Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). However ESSA serves as a gentle push rather than a driving force. Unfortunately, the act does not require states to implement standardized testing for civics, nor does it allocate fixed amounts of funding for civics education development. Instead districts have been simply encouraged to apply for grants and focus on developing a well-rounded education through creating more robust social studies and civics programs.

The decline in Americans’ faith in our American democracy is evident, in 2016 only 16 percent of millennials felt they could trust our institutions. This distrust could come from many sources, but the lack of education around our institutions, government, and the value of democratic practices is certainly a factor.  A more recent study of the 2020 election results indicates the tides are turning — youth feel that it is their responsibility to participate in democracy and make change. The study suggests the majority of youth were mobilized in response to racial justice, rather than increased civics education or practice in schools. Nevertheless, this is a huge step in the right direction.

Outside of civics education from an academic standpoint, educational leaders agree that democratic practice built into school systems is key to developing an understanding and appreciation for democracy in the US and global context. When students see democracy in action, when they are creators and participants in their environment. From small classroom practices to school- and district-wide engagement, practical democracy teaches children that we all have power to act and to make our voice heard.

Without the demand for robust, relevant civics education and practice in schools, it is uncertain if we will see a more civic-fluent new generation that values democratic principles.



The Civics Renewal Network –  The CRN is a group of nonpartisan, nonprofit organizations committed to strengthening civic life in the US by increasing the quality of civics education in our nation’s classrooms and by improving accessibility to quality, free learning materials. Check out their site for advocacy and teaching resources.

Facing History and Ourselves — FHO is a nonprofit with a mission to promote a citizen body that understands history and the responsibilities of an informed democracy. They encourage a participatory and informed democracy, and inspire agency in all to address issues such as racism and inequity. Check out their resources, webinars, curriculum, and community of educators to start the conversation about civics in your community.

iCivics – This site full of fun and educational activities related to civics education for youth was developed by former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. Check out their resources for learning about how to participate in democracy and be an effective citizen.


Brookings – We’ve Built Schools for Modern Economy

Education Commission of the States – Mapping Opportunities for Civic Education

Truthout – Education Central to Democracy

Center for Civics Education – Role of Civics Education

Education Next – Where the Left and Right Agree on Civics Education

Washington Post – Parents Should be Asking for Civics Education in Schools

Washington Post – After Capital Attack Civics Teachers Struggle

The Century Foundation – Putting Democracy Back into Education

ASCD – Teaching Democracy by Doing It

Every Student Succeeds Act

CIRCLE – 2020 Youth Engagement

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