New Jersey’s Path to a Required Course in Civics for Students
Arlene Gardner, New Jersey Center for Civic Education
“An educated citizenry is a vital requisite for our survival as a free people.“ “…if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is…to inform their discretion by education” – Thomas Jefferson, 1820
Background: Short History of Civic Education
Public schools were established with the goal of creating informed citizens. Civic literacy was seen as essential to maintaining a representative democracy and the schools were viewed as the place for young people to learn about their government. In a multiethnic, multi-religious country based on the shared secular ideas of liberty and justice rather than the “blood and soil” nationalism of European countries, a common understanding and appreciation of these fundamental American values was seen as critical.
Until the 1960s, it was common for schools to have civics courses in upper elementary and middle school classes, as well as a separate, required course in civics and government in high school. This pattern broke down in the 1960’s and 1970’s, when social unrest over civil rights, the war in Vietnam and other issues weakened the agreement about core values and put democratic institutions on the defensive, leading to multicultural and other approaches to teaching history and the elimination of civics course in many states, including New Jersey.
By the 1980s, the civic mission of schools was basically abandoned in favor of preparing a new generation of skilled workers. The focus was shifted towards “core” testable subjects like math and reading. The No Child Left Behind Act in 2001 accelerated this push with the hope that test scores in reading and math would predict and improve college and workplace performance. Time spent on social studies was reduced in many schools. In 2011, all federal funding for civics and social studies was eliminated.
Meanwhile, national assessments have shown how little our young people know about government or the role of a citizen in a democracy. While math and reading skills have improved since 1998, less than a quarter of students demonstrated proficiency on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) in Civics in 1998, 2006, 2010, 2014 or 2018. The questions are basic and include multiple choice responses. Yet, for example, in 2018, only 50 percent of eighth grade students understood that the U.S. Congress has the primary legislative power to pass bills. African American and Hispanic students were twice as likely as white students to score below proficient on national assessments. The level of proficiency is related to the amount of instructional time allocated to civics. While only 24% of eighth grade students demonstrated proficiency in civics on the most recent assessment in 2018, eighth graders whose social studies teachers spent at least three hours per week on the subject significantly outperformed their peers who had less instructional time in civics.
With funding from the Carnegie Corporation of New York, a nationwide coalition to study and reinvigorate the civic mission of schools was formed in 2003. The Carnegie Corporation follow-up study in 2010 conducted by the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, the National Conference on Citizenship, the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University, and the American Bar Association Division for Public Education, found that students who receive effective education in social studies are more likely to vote, four times more likely to volunteer and work on community issues, and are generally more confident in their ability to communicate ideas with their elected representatives. “Effective education” included explicit instruction regarding government, law and democracy; discussions of current events and controversial issues; participation in simulated democratic processes and service learning. 
The NJ Coalition to Support the Civic Mission of Schools
By 2004, thirty states had a required civics course. But, there was no requirement for civics at any grade level in New Jersey. It was left to local discretion. With funding from the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Fund for New Jersey, a New Jersey Coalition to Support the Civic Mission of Schools (the Coalition)–a statewide partnership of educators, parents, school administrators, business leaders, legislators and others interested in the future of our civic education and our democracy–was created. Several statewide conferences were held resulting in the recommendation that all New Jersey public school districts be required to have a course of study in civics.
An Inventory of Civic Education in New Jersey conducted in the fall of 2004 disclosed that only 39% of New Jersey school districts required all of their students to take a civics course in any grade.While those students taking an American government elective (10 to 20% of the student body of any given high school) might have the opportunity to participate in a class that requires an understanding of American constitutional democracy and the responsibilities and role of the citizen, students in most New Jersey school districts were exposed to one week to one month of civic content knowledge as part of U.S. history, with little emphasis on the importance of citizen action. The inventory also revealed that less than 35% of school districts had offered a professional development program in civics or government over the prior five years, and the vast majority of school districts indicated that up-to-date, inexpensive classroom materials and professional development would be an effective way to improve civic education.
Following the financial crisis and recession in 2008, New Jersey Governor Jon Corzine sought to have financial literacy taught in New Jersey’s schools. Only three states (Utah, Missouri and Tennessee) required a semester of financial literacy at the time, while 18 other states required that personal finance be incorporated into other subjects. While the issue was being discussed by the New Jersey State Board of Education, the New Jersey Center for Civic Education at Rutgers University (the Center) testified on behalf of the Coalition that a semester of financial literacy should be accompanied by a required semester of civics. The New Jersey School Boards Association, the New Jersey Principals and Supervisors Association, and others protested that there were already too many high school requirements. The State Board of Education added a semester of financial literacy to the high school requirements but did not include a semester of civics.
The Quest for a Civics Requirement in Middle School
After further discussion, the Coalition concluded that perhaps the better place for a required civics course was in middle school. Current New Jersey law required a course in New Jersey history, geography and community civics in an upper elementary grade (NJSA 18A:35-3) and two years of United States history in high school (NJSA 18A:35-1) but nothing was required in middle school. By age 11 or 12 (sixth or seventh grade), students have the ability to do the higher order thinking necessary for a rigorous, relevant, reflective course in civics, and students at this age are more open to attitudinal changes than at older ages. A required civics course in middle school would help to ensure that all New Jersey students (even those who may drop out of school at age 16) have the opportunity to gain the knowledge and skills for informed, active citizenship.
By 2012, forty other states had a required course in civics. The Center drafted a bill requiring civics in middle school, which was introduced in the New Jersey Legislature with bipartisan support. Unfortunately, Governor Chris Christie, following the advice of his Education Commissioner Chris Cerf, believed that the New Jersey Student Learning Standards for Social Studies were sufficient and a civics requirement was not necessary. The Center argued that the social studies standards were written within a chronology, and that many basic civic concepts (such as the purpose of government, the basis of authority and its abuse, privacy, judicial review, the common good, and enlightened self-interest) were not included within the historical framework of standard 6.1 and were not being taught. Although standard 6.3 outlined specific activities that students should take at various grade levels, it failed to offer a broad understanding of how our constitutional democracy functions and the role of the citizen. The Center, with support from the League of Women Voters of New Jersey, stressed that only a fully articulated civics course, along with professional development and resources for teachers, could ensure that every New Jersey student would participate in an engaging, critical thinking and content-rich course of study in civics. However, once it was clear that Governor Christie did not support the idea, the bill was no longer pursued by its legislative sponsors.
Meanwhile, as the center in American politics seemed to split into two warring factions and faith in government plummeted, the momentum to promote and reinvigorate the civic mission of schools as a response was building both nationally and in New Jersey, with numerous articles in newspapers and law and policy reviews. For a better understanding of what a robust civic education can do, in 2019 the Center invited several legislators, as well as Governor Phil Murphy’s Attorney General, Gurbir Singh Grewal, and Secretary of State, Tahesha Way, to the statewide simulated legislative hearings for We the People: The Citizen and the Constitution so thatthey could see first-hand how well-informed, quick thinking and articulate students can be when they participate in an engaging civic education program.
In 2019, Senator Shirley Turner introduced a bill to require a course of study in civics in middle schools. Other legislators were concerned that civic education should not end in middle school. Senator Troy Singleton had introduced a bill to require that civics be taught in high school. The Center noted that N.J.S.A. 18A:35-2 already mandated that civics, economics and New Jersey history and government be taught as part of the required two years of U.S. history in high school, although many social studies supervisors and teachers indicated that this was not happening. To address both the middle and high school concerns, the two bills were merged into a substitute bill, S-854, sponsored by Senators Turner, Singleton and numerous other cosponsors, to require a course in civics in middle school beginning with the 2022 school year and directing the Center to provide professional development and resources for middle AND high school teachers. Titled “Laura Wooten’s Law” after a Mercer County African American woman who served as a poll worker for 79 years, S-854 was unanimously passed by the New Jersey Senate on January 28, 2021, and an identical bill, A-3394 was unanimously passed by the New Jersey Assembly on May 20, 2021.
By directing the New Jersey Center for Civic Education at Rutgers, The State University, to provide the necessary professional development and resources, the legislation recognized that the Center works with national civic organizations as well as the New Jersey Social Studies Supervisors Association and the New Jersey Council for the Social Studies; has been providing professional development and resources for New Jersey’s teachers for 30 years; and has the expertise and experience to offer professional development to teachers from all over the state efficiently and effectively.
Civics must be more than how government functions
Civic education is seen by Americans of all political stripes as the most positive and impactful lever to strengthen national identity. High quality, school-based civics for all learners is foundational to our shared civic strength. However, while 42 states (New Jersey will make it 43) require at least one civics course, few incorporate proven pedagogical principles like classroom-based deliberation and decision-making, critical discussion of current events, simulations of democratic processes, guided debates and deliberations, project-based learning, service learning or media literacy.
S-854 requires the middle school civics course to broadly include “the principles and ideals underlying the American system of constitutional democracy, the function and limitations of government, and the role of a citizen in a democratic society”. Following the legislation, the course should provide explicit and coherent knowledge about how the American system of constitutional democracy functions. The goal, however, is not simply content knowledge about how government works, but also an understanding of the values and ideals that underlie our system of government, and, probably most importantly, the role of the citizen in a democratic society. The focus is on developing critical thinking skills and civic dispositions in addition to civic knowledge, consistent with many of the student performance expectations in the New Jersey Student Learning Standards, which are also to go into effect starting in September 2022.
One of the primary reasons our nation’s founders envisioned a substantial system of public education system was to prepare youth to be active participants in our system of self-government. The responsibilities of each citizen were assumed to go far beyond casting a vote: protecting the common good would require developing students’ critical thinking and communication skills, along with civic virtues. If the goal is for our young people to become informed, active citizens, they need instruction about how government functions and about the role of the citizen, political participation and deliberation, democratic principles, and civic mindedness. Our young people need to develop critical thinking skills so that they know how to examine and evaluate evidence to determine what supports fact-based truth. They need to develop communication skills so that they are able to civilly discuss controversial issues and to influence public policy. Our future citizens need to develop civic dispositions so that they appreciate WHY they should be involved in influencing public policy for the common good.
To achieve this goal, the Center has prepared an Inquiry Framework of questions to guide the development of a middle school civics curriculum. Links to suggested lessons, classrooms activities and resources are being added over the summer, with professional development to begin in August 2021 and continue through 2022 and into the future. Developing a suggested curriculum guide integrating civics, economics, and New Jersey history and government into the required U.S. History course in high school will begin in the fall of 2021. A robust civics education program that provides the skills for every student to be able to negotiate life, work and government offers the best promise for equality and justice for all. New Jersey can be at the forefront of reimagining civic learning for the 21st century. Join us in this endeavor!
Forgotten Purpose: Civic Education in Public Schools, NEA News (2017) at https://www.nea.org/advocating-for-change/new-from-nea/forgotten-purpose-civics-education-public-schools
Edward B. Fiske, The New York Times, June 7, 1987 at https://www.nytimes.com/1987/06/07/us/with-old-values-and-new-titles-civics-courses-make-a-comeback.html
No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 at https://www.congress.gov/bill/107th-congress/house-bill/1
“Bring Back Social Studies,” The Atlantic, Sept. 23, 2013, at https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2013/09/bring-back-social-studies/279891/
 Congressional Record, 112th Congress, at https://www.congress.gov/congressional-report/112th-congress/senate-report/84/1
 Heafner, Tina. 2020. “The Sky Is Not Falling, But We Need to Take Action.” Social Education 84 (4), pp 250–260) at https://www.socialstudies.org/sites/default/files/view-article-2020-08/se-840420250.pdf
 The Civic Mission of Schools, 2003, at https://www.carnegie.org/publications/the-civic-mission-of-schools/
 Guardians of Democracy, 2011, at https://www.csuchico.edu/iege/_assets/documents/susi-guardian-of-democracy-the-civic-mission-of-schools.pdf
 Inventory of Civic Education in New Jersey, 2004, at http://civiced.rutgers.edu/ADVOCACY/Inventory_Report_11-04.pdf
 President’s Advisory Council on Financial Literacy, 2008 at https://www.treasury.gov/about/organizational-structure/offices/Domestic-Finance/Documents/PACFL_Draft-AR-0109.pdf
 N.J.A.C. 6A:8-5.1(a)1v r: Graduation Requirement for Financial, Economic, Business and Entrepreneurial Literacy, NJ State Board of Education at https://www.state.nj.us/education/aps/cccs/career/FLClarification.pdf.
Piaget, “Four Stages of Cognitive Development” at https://www.verywellmind.com/piagets-stages-of-cognitive-development-2795457
 Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) https://circle.tufts.edu/latest-research/state-laws-standards-and-requirements-k-12-civics
 See, E.g., Fred Islam and Ed Crego, “Why are Parkland Students So Articulate? Because They Were Taught Civics in Middle School,” Washington Monthly, Mar. 5, 2018 at https://washingtonmonthly.com/2018/03/05/the-civic-education-program-that-trained-the-parkland-student-activists/; Timothy Egan, “Actually, You can Fix Stupid,” The New York Times, Mar. 30, 2018, at https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/30/opinion/protests-democracy-teens.html; Thomas Friedman, “The Two Codes Your Kids Need to Know,” The New York Times, Feb. 12, 2019 at https://www.nytimes.com/2019/02/12/opinion/college-board-sat-ap.html; Sarah Shapiro and Catherine Brown, The State of Civics Education, The Center for American Progress (Feb. 21, 2018) at https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/education-k-12/reports/2018/02/21/446857/state-civics-education/; Adam Terragnoli. “The Crisis of Civics Education: A Case for Mandated Civics Assessments,” Cornell Policy Review, January 18, 2019 at http://www.cornellpolicyreview.com/crisis-of-civics-education/
 Guardians of Democracy; CivXNow. 2020. “Civic Education Has Massive Cross-Partisan Appeal as a Solution to What Ails Our Democracy.” at https://www.civxnow.org/ sites/default/files/resources/CivXNow%20infographic%20-%20Luntz%20polling%20-%20FINAL.pdf
 Hansen, Michael, Mann Levesque, Elizabeth, Valant, John, and Diana Quintero. 2018 Brown Center Report on Civic Education: An inventory of state civics requirements. (2018) at https://www.brookings.edu/research/2018-brown-center-report-on-american-education-an-inventory-of-state-civicsrequirements/
 NJ Student Learning Standards for Social Studies 2020 at https://www.state.nj.us/education/cccs/2020/2020%20NJSLS-SS.pdf