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How Can We Help Children Learn To Be Responsible Citizens

February 1994



U.S. Department of Education, Office Of Educational Research And Improvement


What Do Young American Need To Learn About Responsible Citizenship?

What Can Parents Do?

What Can Schools Do?

Where Can Parents And Teachers Get Information And Materials?



Raising Our Kids

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Responsibilities of citizenship are obligations to contribute to the common good by performing duties to benefit the community, such as becoming informed about public policies, voting in public elections, serving on a juries, and obeying the laws.

Surveys of civic knowledge, attitudes, and actions reveal serious deficiencies in the citizenship education of young Americans. Reports on civic learning by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) indicate that the majority of 12th-graders have a rudimentary knowledge of government and citizenship in the United States. However, half the students in grade 12 fail to demonstrate knowledge needed for responsible participation in the political system. A disturbing finding was that high school students did "significantly less well" in civics in the most recent assessment (1988) than their 1982 counterparts.

What Do Young Americans Need To Learn About Responsible Citizenship?

Our forebearers fought for the rights that Americans enjoy today. To preserve our civil rights, young Americans need to realize the part they must play: the preservation of civil rights and liberties is directly linked to performed responsibilities. For example, the right of political participation means little when most citizens fail to exercise it. Furthermore, the right to free expression of political ideas is diminished when individuals do not gain knowledge about government. Fulfilling responsibilities, such as voluntary service to the community, participating in the political system, acquiring knowledge about civic life, and demonstrating a public commitment to the values of constitutional democracy (for example, liberty, justice, and the rule of law) are essential to the health of a free society.

Most students acknowledge the importance of voting and campaigning in public elections, but they also tend to express low levels of political interest and fail to see that their political actions make a difference. The percentage of 18- to 24-year-olds voting in public elections lags far behind the rate for those over age 25, which also tends to be much lower than desired by advocates of responsible citizenship.

Young Americans clearly need to become more attuned to their responsibilities as citizens of a democratic society. Parents and teachers must act in concert to strengthen the desire and capacity of children to fulfill civic obligations.

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What Can Parents Do?

Parents are children's first and most influential teachers of civic values and attitudes. Lessons learned at home about political participation or community service are likely to set the tone for later learning about citizenship responsibilities.

Parents can help their children learn more about citizenship by:

  • Setting a good example. Participate in the political system and volunteer for community service projects. Invite your child to join you.

  • Showing interest in civic affairs and government by initiating conversations at dinner time or in response to television programs or newspaper articles about current events.

  • Requiring children to perform duties regularly at home to demonstrate the value of contributing to the common good of the family.

  • Encouraging children to take part in community service projects such as cleaning up the neighborhood, recycling materials to conserve natural resources, and tutoring younger children with learning problems. Participate with them if you can.

  • Providing civic learning resources in the home--books, magazines, newspapers--and using them with children. For example, read articles about political issues or varying ethical or moral views.

  • Transmitting and reinforcing the civic values of our constitutional democracy through discussions, exemplary behavior, and use of fair rules for orderly family life.

  • Monitoring and reinforcing at home the lessons learned in school about the responsibilities of citizenship.

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What Can Schools Do?

The school also has a major effect on the civic attitudes of children. School is the primary agency for teaching about politics and government. Schools can enhance education about citizenship responsibilities through the following activities:

  • Increasing the amount of time all students are involved in civic education at all levels of school.

  • Infusing lessons about the responsibilities of citizenship into all subjects in all grades, with special emphasis in social studies and literature courses.

  • Requiring students to read, analyze, and discuss cases and stories about people involved in the civic life of their communities in the past and present.

  • Establishing cooperative learning experiences in which groups of students take responsibility for achieving educational objectives.

  • Involving students in simulations and role-playing activities about various aspects of civic responsibilities.

  • Establishing school-based programs for performing community service as a regular part of the civics curriculum.

  • Emphasizing lessons about the civic values of our constitutional democracy through role-modeling, reading and writing assignments, and open discussion of public issues and current events.

  • Making assignments that require students to write letters to government officials or newspapers to advocate opinions about public issues and policies.

  • Making assignments that require students to participate in political activities outside the classroom.

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Where Can Parents And Teachers Get Information And Materials?

Information and materials on how to teach the rights and responsibilities of citizenship can be obtained from the agencies listed below.

American Bar Association Special Committee on Youth Education for Citizenship
541 North Fairbanks Avenue
Chicago, IL 60611-3314
(312) 988-5735

Center for Civic Education 5146 Douglas Fir Road
Calabasas, CA 91302
(818) 340-9320

Close Up Foundation
44 Canal Center Plaza
Alexandria, VA 22314
(703) 706-3300

Council for the Advancement of Citizenship
1200 Eighteenth Street NW
Suite 302
Washington, DC 20036
(202) 857-0580

Educational Excellence Network
1112 Sixteenth Street NW
Suite 500
Washington, DC 20036
(202) 785-2985

National Council for the Social Studies
3501 Newark Street NW
Washington, DC 20016
(202) 966-7840

Social Studies Development Center and ERIC Clearinghouse for Social Studies/ Social Science Education
Indiana University
2805 East 10th Street, Suite 120
Bloomington, IN 47408-2698
(812) 855-3838

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Most of the following references--those identified with an ED or EJ number--have been abstracted and are in the ERIC database. The journal articles should be available at most research libraries. For a list of ERIC collections in your area, contact ACCESS ERIC at 1 (800) LET-ERIC.

Barber, Benjamin R. (October 1989). "Public Talk and Civic Action: Education for Participation in a Strong Democracy." Social Education, 53 (6), 355-356, 370. EJ 398 352.

Boyer, Ernest L. (November 1990). "Civic Education for Responsible Citizens." Educational Leadership, 48 (3), 4-7.

Conrad, Daniel and Diane Hedin (1987). Youth Services: A Guidebook For Developing And Operating Effective Programs. Washington, DC: Independent Sector. ED 287 028.

Hart, Peter D. (1989). Democracy's Next Generation: A Study Of Youth And Teachers. Washington, DC: People for the American Way.

Miller, Jon D. (1985). Effective Participation: A Standard For Social Science Education. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Social Science Education Consortium, Racine, WI. ED 265 083.

National Assessment of Educational Progress (1990). The Civics Report Card. Princeton, NJ: Educational Testing Service. ED 315 376.

Newmann, Fred M., and Robert A. Rutter (January 1986). "A Profile of High School Community Service Programs." Educational Leadership, 43 (4), 65-71. EJ 329 636.

Parker, Walter, and John Jarolimek (1984). Citizenship And The Critical Role Of The Social Studies. Washington, DC: National Council for the Social Studies. ED 244 880.

Patrick, John J. (1988). Schools And Civic Values. Bloomington, IN: ERIC Clearinghouse for Social Studies/Social Science Education. ED 313 270.

Ravitch, Diane (1990). Democracy: What It Is, How To Teach It. Washington, DC: Educational Excellence Network. ED 319 650.

Reische, Diana L. (1987). Citizenship: Goal Of Education. Arlington, VA: American Association of School Administrators. ED 292 714.

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Written by John Patrick, Director, ERIC Clearinghouse for Social Studies/Social Science Education.

This publication was prepared by ACCESS ERIC in association with the ERIC Clearinghouse for Social Studies/Social Science Education, with funding from the Office of Educational Research and Improvement, U.S. Department of Education, under Contract No. RI890120. The opinions expressed in this brochure do not necessarily reflect the positions or policies of the Department of Education.

Last update 01/07/94


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