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The Florida Bar Journal
May, 2016 Volume 90, No. 5
Raising the Bar on Civic Education

by Annette Boyd Pitts

Page 8

National polls and surveys continue to document the limited knowledge held by Americans about civics, including our government and its corresponding institutions, processes, and practices. Studies publicize even the most basic knowledge deficits that plague our citizenry. This deficiency, coupled with the decline of quality civic education in our nation’s schools, is cause for concern. If democracy lies in the hands of ordinary citizens, who ultimately serve on juries, vote in elections, evaluate public issues, and possibly run for office, what impact will this civic education deficit have on self-government?

A national survey released by the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania found that Americans know very little about how our government works.1 Thirty-five percent could not name even one of the three branches of government and 60 percent could not identify the political party in control of the U.S. House of Representatives.2 Previous studies have documented that nearly one-third of Americans believe a U.S. Supreme Court decision can be appealed, while one in four Americans think that a 5-4 decision of the U.S. Supreme Court is sent to Congress for resolution.3 Approximately half of Americans believe that the president of the United States must follow the rulings of the U.S. Supreme Court.4

A separate national study conducted by found that nearly two-thirds of Americans could not name even one member of the U.S. Supreme Court.5 While one can debate whether it is important to recall the names, or numbers, of persons who serve in the U.S. House of Representatives or on the U.S. Supreme Court, it is important to recognize that without a basic knowledge of the structure of our government, the public is unlikely to understand more complex and fundamental concepts, such as the role of checks and balances, separation of powers, and judicial review. The judicial branch and its unique role in our constitutional structure may be particularly vulnerable when public knowledge is limited. Attempts to politicize the courts may be strengthened by this knowledge deficit.

This crisis in civic learning is impacting all ages and demographics. Even college graduates are not immune from this civic knowledge deficit. In a poll conducted by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, 60 percent of college graduates did not know the process for ratifying a constitutional amendment and 40 percent did not recognize that Congress has the power to declare war.6 Additionally, 10 percent of college graduates thought Judith Sheindlin — Judge Judy — served on the U. S. Supreme Court.7 In its report, A Crisis in Civic Education, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni reported in 2015 that by allowing civic illiteracy, we have disempowered young citizens.8 Civic education improves civic knowledge, skills, and dispositions, and has the capacity to be the great equalizer in our political system. Without opportunities for quality instruction, students’ abilities to understand and participate in government are ultimately weakened.

The Center for the Study of the American Dream at Xavier University conducted a survey that has generated legislative and media attention in some states.9 The national survey tested the civic knowledge of native-born citizens compared to immigrants applying for U. S. citizenship. One in three native-born citizens failed the civics portion of the U.S. naturalization test (also referred to as the U.S. citizenship test), while a 97.5 percent passage rate was reported for immigrants applying for U. S. citizenship.

The survey results found:

• 85 percent did not know the meaning of “the rule of law.”

• 82 percent could not name “two rights stated in the Declaration of Independence.”

• 75 percent were not able to correctly answer “What does the judicial branch do?”

• 71 percent were unable to identify the Constitution as the “supreme law of the land.”

• 68 percent did not know how many justices are on the Supreme Court.

• 63 percent could not name one of their two US Senators.

• 62 percent could not identify “What happened at the Constitutional Convention?”

• 62 percent could not answer “the name of the Speaker of the US House.”

The Center also noted that “77 percent of native-born citizens agreed that all Americans should be able to pass the test,” and “60 percent agreed that high school students should have to pass the civics portion of the naturalization test as a requirement for graduation.”10 Several states are pursuing such requirements amid mixed reviews and controversy over what constitutes effective civic education.

A School Perspective
Equally alarming as the statistics highlighting the adult knowledge deficit are the national reports highlighting the dismal status of civics and government instruction in our public schools. The National Center for Learning and Civic Engagement at the Education Commission of the States maintains a national database with updated public policy information on how states are addressing civic learning deficits at all levels. Some proponents of the citizenship test graduation requirement policies say mandating passage of such a test for high school seniors is a start in the right direction, while critics feel that the mere recall of basic facts is not sufficient to combat our civics deficit and prepare citizens for self-government. Higher order, more complex critical and deliberative thinking is the ultimate goal.

Recognizing the critical need to improve the state of civic education in our nation’s schools, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, retired associate justice, U.S. Supreme Court, and founder of iCivics, has ignited a national conversation, traveling the country over the last decade as a national spokesperson for the need for quality civic education. “The better educated our citizens are, the better equipped they will be to preserve the system of government we have. Knowledge about our government is not handed down through the gene pool. Every generation has to learn it, and we have some work to do. We have neglected civic education for the past several decades, and the results are predictably dismal,” stated Justice O’Connor. Her national stature and nonpartisan approach have contributed to significant interest and advancements in civic education policies, programs, and practices at all levels. Her impact in Florida has been no exception.

With the decline of quality civics instruction nationally in our public schools and the absence of effective public policy, Florida has defied the odds. From its applied civics instruction and state standards, to law-focused adult civic education models, Florida is unique in the landscape of civic learning. Implementing a range of national and state programs exemplifying best practices, the Florida Law Related Education Association, Inc. (FLREA)11 has worked for three decades alongside the legal, education, and judicial communities to strengthen the state’s civic infrastructure and provide law-focused civic education training, curriculum materials, partnerships, public policy models, academic competitions, and simulations.

Florida leads the nation in its civic and law-related education initiatives, due in large measure to FLREA. Since its development in 1984, with the assistance of The Florida Bar and The Florida Bar Foundation, FLREA has laid the groundwork for a successful, law-focused, nonpartisan approach to experiential school-based and adult civic learning. FLREA administers a wide range of state and national programs incorporating best practices to advance civic education. Innovative law-focused initiatives including trial and appellate court simulations, constitutional hearings, digital law apps, online curriculum modules, adult civic education forums, state court institutes, webinars, and game-based learning platforms demonstrate the depth and dimensions of the organization’s outreach. Working closely with the legal and judicial communities, FLREA has built a strong and respected trajectory of law-focused, civic education programs for students of all ages.

Florida is one of very few states that has gone beyond the traditional high school government course requirement and actually mandates a civics course in middle school with corresponding state standards and an end-of-course exam. This statewide requirement for public schools has only been implemented through public policy changes in the last decade, but the impact is already felt. Students in grades six through eight performed higher overall on the civics end-of-course assessment in 2015 when compared to students who took the test in 2014.

Most states do not implement statewide end-of-course exams for civics and, thus, schools do not have access to state-level data. They only have access to more generalized national testing data utilizing results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) civics assessment. NAEP is a congressionally mandated and funded assessment of student achievement in specific subjects.​

In 2010, NAEP assessed civics at the fourth, eighth, and 12th grade levels. In 2014, only grade eight was assessed. There was no significant change in the average 2014 NAEP civics assessment scores nationally for eighth grade compared to 2010.12 There was a decrease in 12th grade scores in civics from 2006-2010.13

The Impact
Warnings throughout history continue to intimate today that civic apathy and indifference may lead to the downfall of democracy. For this experiment in self-government to continue, we must prepare each generation anew for the challenges before us. Knowledgeable citizens monitor and evaluate government leaders and processes and help prevent abuse of power and ensure accountability.

For far too long, civic education has taken a back seat in the instructional arena nationally and has not been recognized as a valued area of instruction. Investing in civic learning strengthens American democracy.14 Schools have a civic mission and a public purpose to prepare citizens for their role in self-government. Yet for decades, we have dismissed this area of instruction without consideration of its vital role in the preservation of our democracy. Some states have no civics and government requirements. Other states have a government requirement at 12th grade generally. Given the current status of civic learning in our country, it appears to be a matter of too little too late.15 Despite these national trends, Florida has defied the odds and created a model approach to civic learning that is catching the attention of the nation.

The Florida Law-Focused Model for Civic Learning and FLREA
FLREA was created through the efforts of Florida’s lawyers and judges, and is unique in the landscape of civic learning in Florida. The ultimate goal of the initiative was to create a nonprofit whose mission would be to advance quality law-related education programs. FLREA was incorporated in 1984 and began with a whirlwind of enthusiasm and interest. Programs to advance constitutional education as well as court education initiatives took first priority. Efforts to commemorate the bicentennial of the U.S. Constitution evolved into elementary, middle, and high school constitutional education programs that remain active three decades later. The U.S. Department of Education provided funding in the organization’s inaugural year to survey school districts and create a network of law-related education programs statewide. As the years passed, new initiatives took root with the Florida High School Mock Trial Competition, the Florida Supreme Court Justice Teaching Institute, and a host of other law-related and civic education initiatives.

FLREA developed a network of law magnet and law academies at the high school level and created a wide range of substantive law electives for the Florida Department of Education Course Code Directory. Today, Florida offers more law-related courses than any state in the country. Courses include law studies, comprehensive law studies, court procedures, court procedures internship, legal systems and concepts, constitutional law, international law, and more. Middle schools also began offering law-related electives as well, and, today, we are fortunate to have middle school law academies in multiple districts. Many schools built courtrooms on their campuses and forensic labs, among other additions.

In the mid-1990s, FLREA began working with the Florida Supreme Court and helped create a model state courts institute for teachers that continues today. All seven justices serve as faculty for the institute. Constitution Day and Law Week programs were also implemented and justices often visited classrooms statewide.

Soon, a movement was underway to strengthen civic education state standards and public policy. Between 2003 and 2004, FLREA surveyed school districts in Florida and found that very little time was allocated in elementary grades to teach any social studies, mainly because of FCAT testing priorities. Surveys in middle schools during the same time period found that less than 10 percent of school districts reported offering a separate standalone civics course in middle school. Miami-Dade County reported the longest standing mandatory year-long civics course in seventh grade.

There was a statewide high school graduation requirement in Florida during this time for a one-half credit semester course in American government, including the study of the U.S. Constitution.16 The course continues to be required instruction today. It was generally taught at 12th grade so a student dropping out of high school prior to taking this course could have never taken a civics or government course throughout his or her entire time in public school.

In 2005, surveys were conducted by the ABA and The Florida Bar to ascertain the status of civic knowledge among adults. Based on these survey results, state teams were invited to participate in congressional conferences on civic education held in Washington, D.C. FLREA served as the state team leader in these conferences, which included state legislators, staff from the Department of Education (DOE), leaders from the League of Women Voters, and Common Cause, as well as bar leaders and other representatives. Florida Bar President Alan Bookman visited media outlets to raise awareness of the lack of civic knowledge and a statewide campaign began to advance civic education in Florida. Bookman’s impact on the civic landscape of Florida has been significant, leading to increased interest among policymakers to explore the civic learning deficit.

A former participant in the congressional conferences, Florida House member Curtis Richardson spearheaded the inaugural civic legislation in Florida as part of the 2006 Middle School Reform Act. One simple line in a massive 160-page education bill created the first required instruction for middle school civics in Florida. Senator Ron Klein led the charge in the Florida Senate and the proposal became law in 2006. The original requirement provided one semester of civics and government in middle school. This language was later changed to at least one semester.

The DOE sent a memo to all district superintendents providing options for implementing the new middle school requirements. The options were to offer a semester civics course, a year-long civics course, or to integrate the content into a U.S. history course.

Soon after, DOE began development of new state standards in social studies. FLREA served on a statewide committee as a framer and a writer for the civics and government standards and benchmarks. The Next Generation Sunshine State Standards were ultimately approved in 2008 for grades K-12 in Florida. Civics and government benchmarks were developed for all grades with specific emphasis on grades five, seven, and high school.

A new middle school progression plan was recommended to include sixth grade world history, seventh grade civics, and eighth grade American history. Forty benchmarks were developed for the seventh grade civics course, including applied civics components with simulations, problem solving, and higher-order thinking elements.

These content-focused benchmarks also incorporate application and experiential components that are less easy to test but provide a more hands-on approach to civic learning. The benchmarks are organized within four main standards. These include:

Standard One: Demonstrate an understanding of the origins and purposes of government, law, and the American political system.

Standard Two: Evaluate the roles, rights, and responsibilities of U.S. citizens, and determine methods of active participation in society, government, and the political system.

Standard Three: Demonstrate an understanding of the principles, functions, and organization of government, including landmark cases Gideon v. Wainwright, Brown v. Board of Education, and Tinker v. Des Moines, among others.

Standard Four: Demonstrate an understanding of contemporary issues in world affairs and evaluate the role and impact of U.S. foreign policy.

In 2009, FLREA hosted Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, during her trip to Florida. Justice O’Connor visited with students at Deerlake Middle School in Tallahassee to see their work with iCivics, a game-based learning platform. She also met with local civics teachers and members of the bench and the Bar. She spoke to both chambers of the Florida Legislature as well as the governor and cabinet on the civic knowledge deficit in this country and brought statewide attention to the importance of civic education.

The following year, the Florida Legislature proposed and unanimously passed the Sandra Day O’Connor Act, which accomplished three major priorities for civics in Florida.17 First, the law required the reading portion of language arts to include civic education content. Second, the legislation clarified the original 2006 legislation to designate at least one semester of civics in the middle grades. This allowed for a year-long civics class as opposed to one single semester. Finally, the legislation required the inclusion of an end-of-course exam for civics in middle school.

Proven Practices in Civic Learning
Six “proven practices” to enhance civic learning have emerged after a decade of research.18 These civics essentials are important in the design of effective civic learning and include:

1) Provide high-quality, engaging classroom instruction in government, history, law, and democracy to increase student knowledge;

2) Incorporate discussions of current events and controversial issues into the classroom to enhance civic learning;

3) Design and implement service-learning programs that provide students with the opportunity to apply what they learn through community service that is linked to the formal curriculum and classroom instruction;

4) Offer extracurricular activities that provide opportunities for young people be involved in their schools or communities;

5) Encourage student participation in school governance through student councils or other forms of participation;

6) Provide opportunities for students to participate in simulations of democratic processes and procedures.19

Program Models
In keeping with best practices, FLREA administers a wide range of innovative model civic education programs. FLREA serves as the state coordinator for iCivics, an exemplary online civic learning initiative utilizing interactive and engaging learning materials.20 The free resources include print-and-go lesson plans, award-winning games, and digital interactives. This learning tool features curriculum units, lesson plans, games, drafting board argumentative essay writing, DB quest using primary source documents, and web quests. Florida leads the nation in teacher and student use of the site.

We the People…the Citizen and the Constitution is a national constitution education program that incorporates a six-unit textbook at the elementary, middle, and high school levels. A culminating mock congressional hearing is the concluding activity to help students apply their constitutional knowledge. Administered nationally by the Center for Civic Education, FLREA serves as the state coordinator in Florida. Academic competitions are offered at the district, state, and national levels. The program is generally offered in fifth, seventh, and 12th grades.

The U.S. Senate Youth Program is an interview-based scholarship program funded by the Hearst Foundations where students interested in public service may apply for the opportunity to travel to Washington, D.C., to represent our state, meet the president of the United States and the chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, and have a firsthand experience with the federal government. FLREA works with the state offices of both U.S. senators to select the students.

FLREA developed and continues to administer the Florida High School Mock Trial and Moot Court Competitions, which involve simulated civil and criminal trials as well as appellate oral arguments. Students explore the legal process as attorneys and witnesses skilled in public speaking, critical thinking, professionalism, and a wide range of other experiential skills.

Project Citizen allows middle and high school students the opportunity to resolve problems in their state and communities by proposing public policy resolutions. This project-based learning model provides a wealth of civic learning experiences as students interact directly with government agencies and officials.

FLREA also offers an online civics curriculum wheel with lessons and presentations for each of the 40 benchmarks aligned with the seventh grade civics course. FLREA provides professional development and technical assistance to school districts to prepare teachers for the end-of-course exam.

The Justice Teaching Institute provides a week-long professional development opportunity for teachers in Florida. The academy is held annually at the Florida Supreme Court and is taught by all seven justices. FLREA provides faculty assistance and staff support for the institute. Studies have documented that as knowledge about the courts increases so too does trust and confidence. Learning about the appellate process, precedent, and judicial decisionmaking are important components of this program.

Finally, FLREA has worked with The Florida Bar Constitutional Judiciary Committee to develop a wide range of interactive, engaging civic education presentations targeting the adult public. The Benchmarks21 and Informed Voters Project22 materials provide all of the resources one needs to make community presentations to local, nonpartisan civic groups. Activities on the Bill of Rights, judicial selection processes, federal and state courts, and a wide range of other topics have been developed for use by attorneys and judges with civic organizations.

These and other model programs are used consistently in states reporting positive outcomes in civic learning.

Where Do We Go from Here?
As lawyers and judges we must be committed to educating the public of all ages and preserving and improving our system of government. Partnerships with the education community, such as Justice Teaching, participating in professional development, and presenting in a wide range of forums in the community contribute greatly to combating the civic education deficit.

While Florida has made incredible strides in the advancement of civic education statewide with its year-long mandatory seventh grade civics course and end-of-course exam, there are still many needs both statewide and nationally to consider. In Florida, we need to improve teacher efficacy by investing in quality professional development for teachers, emphasizing content and best practices. Additionally, we need to ensure that the materials utilized in the classroom are neutral and nonpartisan. Teachers need to evaluate materials for political bias and prepare and present lessons with this in mind. We are teaching students how to think through complex issues, not what to think.

The creation of state-by-state comparisons of NAEP civics data would help states identify weaknesses in their curriculum and encourage healthy competition between states and civics scores.

Additional needs include requirements for civics and government courses at the college and university levels. Only 18 percent of American colleges and universities require even one foundation course in U.S. history or government.23

The benefits of civic learning are enormous and far reaching. High-quality civic learning practices increase civic knowledge and prepare students and adults to address complex challenges and solve problems in their communities. They are more likely to vote and discuss politics, think critically and act civilly, communicate with their elected officials, and speak confidently and publicly.

As attorneys and judges, we should invest time in educating the public about the courts and the Constitution. We need to find opportunities to help the public understand the differences between judges and other elected officials, how judges make decisions based on the facts and the law, and ways that judges are accountable. Courts remain our most trusted institution, but the numbers are declining. Perspectives may change depending on any number of variables. Helping students and adults alike really understand our system and how it works will equip them with the knowledge and skills to make their own independent decisions.

1 Annenberg Public Policy Center, University of Pennsylvania, Americans Know Surprisingly Little About Their Government, Survey Finds (July 2014), available at The national survey of 1,416 U.S. adults was conducted July 8, 2014, as part of the ongoing 2014 Annenberg Institutions of Democracy project. Some of the results closely track APPC studies in 2011 and 2012. The margin of error on the current survey is plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.

2 Id.

3 Kathleen Hall Jamieson, Annenberg Public Policy Center. University of Pennsylvania, Guardian of Democracy: The Civic Mission of Schools at 4, available at

4 K.H. Jamieson & M. Hennessy, Public Understanding of and Support for the Courts: Survey Results, 95 Georgetown L. J. 899-902 (2007), available at

5 Findlaw, News Release, Two-Thirds of Americans Can’t Name Any U.S. Supreme Court Justices Says New Survey (Aug. 20, 2012), available at

6 William Gonch & Dr. Michael Poliakoff, American Council of Trustees and Alumni, A Crisis in Civic Education at 5, available at

7 Daniella Diaz, Report: 10 Percent of College Graduates Think Judge Judy Is on the Supreme Court, (Jan. 19, 2016).

8 William Gonch & Dr. Michael Poliakoff, American Council of Trustees and Alumni, A Crisis in Civic Education at 5, available at

9 Xavier University, One in Three Americans Fail Immigrant Naturalization Civics Test (2012),

10 Id.

11 Florida Law Related Education Association,

12 National Assessment of Education Progress, U.S. Department of Education, Institute for Education Sciences, The Nation’s Report Card, Civics 2014, available at

13 Id.

14 Jonathan Gould, The Leonore Annenberg Institute for Civics of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania and the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools, Guardian of Democracy: The Civic Mission of Schools, available at file:///C:/Users/OD0447/Downloads/114kcfl451.pdf.

15 Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools, Civic Learning Fact Sheet,

16 Fla. Stat. §1003.43(g) (“For students entering the ninth grade in the 1997-98 school year and thereafter, the study of Florida government, including study of the state constitution, the three branches of state government, and municipal and county government, shall be included as part of the required study of American government.”).

17 Fla. Stat. §1003.4156.

18 Meira Levinson, Benefits of Civic Education: Increased Equality and Narrowed Civic Empowerment Gap, Guardian of Democracy: The Civic Mission of Schools (2011), available at

19 Id.

20 iCivics,

21 Benchmarks,

22 Informed Voters Project,

23 William Gonch & Dr. Michael Poliakoff, American Council of Trustees and Alumni, A Crisis in Civic Education at 1, available at

Annette Boyd Pitts is the founding executive director of the Florida Law Related Education Association, Inc. She has worked to advance education for democracy in 25 countries. She is the recipient of the National Improvements in Justice Award, the ABA Isidore Starr Award, and the Sandra Day O’Connor Award for Advancements in Civic Education presented by the National Center for State Courts.

[Revised: 04-26-2016]