Is Civics Education a Lost Cause? Not to Some Foundations

With all of the attention paid by policymakers and funders to reading and math standards (Common Core and otherwise) on the one hand, and increasing student interest in STEM disciplines on the other, social studies topics, such as civics, seem like the academic equivalent of the neglected middle child.

That neglect is not good—for students or for American society at large—because all is not well in civics land. While most states require high school students to pass standardized tests in reading and math to graduate from high school, only a handful require students to pass any assessments related to history, government, or other social studies topics. Further, multiple studies have shown that many Americans do not know the basic facts of their country’s history, its form of government, or economic system. Schools may be redoubling their efforts to prepare students for college or careers, but they are not preparing them to be participating citizens in American democracy. 

To really instill the knowledge and skills students need for constructive participation in public affairs, civics education should go beyond rote memorization of names and dates by using activities that engage students’ attention and interest. And one educational nonprofit that does just that, iCivics, has been attracting a decent amount of foundation support lately. Most recently, iCivics landed a $750,000 grant through the MacArthur Foundation's annual Awards for Creative and Effective Institutions. 

The group has also pulled in funding in recent years from the Gates Foundation, the S.D. Bechtel Jr. Foundation, the Draper Richards Kaplan Foundation, the Carnegie Corporation, the Park Foundation, and other supporters. 

Founded in 2009 by former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, iCivics uses interactive lessons, games, and other activities to make civics education more engaging and give students the tools and knowledge needed to understand and address contemporary issues and concerns. To reinvigorate civics education, iCivics has developed a series of online role playing games that give students the task of making the hard decisions required in a democratic society.

For example, the iCivics game “Do I Have a Right?” puts students in charge of their own law firms, advising on citizen rights, while “Executive Command” places them in the Oval Office and provides lessons about representative democracy. iCivics also has digital tools that help students write persuasive essays, and read and understand foundational documents.

These are the types of interactive, participatory activities that a Stanford University panel in 2013 called necessary for civic education that goes beyond memorizing facts and dates, and inspires students to participate in civic life. Games and other iCivics materials have civics learning objectives and are grouped into topical categories that align with Common Core and state academic standards.

The American Library Association has taken notice of iCivics’ work, giving it the association’s Best Websites for Teaching and Learning recognition. iCivics reaches more than 60,000 teachers and 6.5 million students across the 50 states. With the grant from MacArthur, iCivics plans to establish a venture fund to support innovation and financial sustainability, strengthen its fundraising activities, and equip a new office in Boston.

The award to iCivics aligns nicely with MacArthur’s Digital Media and Learning program, as well as its Strengthening American Democracy initiative. It also reminds nonprofits that even though civics and other social studies topics may not have the high profile among funders that the Common Core and STEM command, these topics should not be neglected. And organizations willing to do their homework can find a funder willing to invest in them.

Before leaving this topic, we also note that another big Chicago foundation, the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, is also deeply committed to civics education, and this is one of its main funding areas. Much of its money for civics stays in Illinois, but grants do reach organizations elsewhere that share McCormick's belief that the world's oldest democracy should have an informed and engaged citizenry.