Civic Education: The U.S. Constitution Is the Core

Dec 06, 2016 / Message from the Center

By Charles N. Quigley

Over the past three years U.S. Senators Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) and Ben Cardin (D-Maryland) have passed three successive resolutions expressing the sense of the U.S. Senate about the importance of effective civic education programs in schools in the United States and affirming the importance of constitutional literacy. You can read the resolutions listed below:

S. Res. 427 in the 113th Congress
S. Res. 150 and S. Res. 440 in the 114th Congress

The following passage from the resolutions refers to core documents of American constitutionalism:

Whereas civic education programs foster understanding of the history and principles of the constitutional government of the United States, including principles that are embodied in certain fundamental documents and speeches, such as the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution of the United States, the Bill of Rights, the Federalist Papers, the Gettysburg Address, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” Speech…

Because of the Center’s curricular focus on constitutional literacy I was very pleased that the aforementioned Senate resolutions were instrumental in influencing the language of the opening section of the American History and Civics Section 2301 of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), the new federal law that authorizes virtually every federal elementary and secondary education program in the United States. From the amounts appropriated to carry out this part, the Secretary is authorized to carry out an American history and civics program to improve—

(1) the quality of American history, civics, and government education by educating students about the history and principles of the Constitution of the United States, including the Bill of Rights; and

(2) the quality of teaching of American history, civics, and government in elementary schools and secondary schools, including the teaching of traditional American history.

There is additional language in Section 2233 of the law under National Activities that provides guidance to the U.S. Department of Education to award grants to eligible entities for “programs that educate students about the history and principles of the Constitution of the United States, including the Bill of Rights.”

This important language rightly cites the importance of students understanding the heritage of their country and their founding principles. Without this foundation, without this core, young people will not have a sufficient frame of reference to understand and exercise their rights and responsibilities in our constitutional democracy.

Since the founding of the Center for Civic Education our programs have been focused on helping students develop

- an increased understanding of the institutions of constitutional democracy and the fundamental principles and values upon which they are founded,
- the skills necessary to participate as effective citizens, and
- a disposition to participate in the political process and willingness to use democratic procedures for making decisions and managing conflict.

Center programs focus upon promoting student engagement in the political life of their communities, states, and nation. Students learn the importance of persistence and perseverance in seeking the development and implementation of public policies that respect the rights of individuals and promote the common good. They learn that in a democratic society the possibility of effecting social change is ever present if citizens have the knowledge, the skills, and the will to bring it about. That knowledge, those skills or necessary traits of private and public character, are the products of a good civic education.

Over the past several decades many civic education programs have been developed for use in the nation’s classrooms with varying degrees of success. These programs have emphasized various strategies to inspire and engage students and enable them to be lifelong citizens that contribute to the civic life of their community. These include traditional American government courses, mock elections, and hands-on programs that promote participation in local and state government, such as the Center’s Project Citizen program. All these types of approaches are important means of civic education instruction when used with critical thinking exercises, problem-solving activities, and cooperative-learning techniques.

James Madison Legacy Project teachers from the Virginia-DC-West Virginia-Maryland partnership at the 2016 summer institute held June 19–24 at James Madison’s Montpelier in Orange, Virginia.

James Madison Legacy Project teachers from the Virginia-DC-West Virginia-Maryland partnership at the 2016 summer institute held June 19–24 at James Madison’s Montpelier in Orange, Virginia.

However, in the totality of a student’s K–12 civic education experience it is essential that they have a profound understanding of the nation’s fundamental documents, such as those noted in the Senate resolutions as well as landmark decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court, the constitution of the state in which students reside, and other significant writings and speeches. Student familiarity with these documents must go beyond simply having them espouse “slogans of democracy” and should show that they can demonstrate a depth of understanding of important constitutional concepts.

We the People Program

Since 1986, the Center has implemented a nationwide program entitled We the People: The Citizen and the Constitution that complements the regular school curriculum by providing upper elementary, middle, and high schools with a high-quality and rigorous course of instruction on the history and principles of the U.S. Constitution. Despite federal cutbacks that once supported the We the People program, the curriculum continues to be a fixture in America’s classrooms, thanks in part to its significant effects as proven by independent researchers. The We the People national competition, held in Washington, D.C., each spring, continues to be one of the nation’s premier civic education events and showcases student constitutional knowledge and understanding at an extremely high level.

Most recently Georgia Holley, a teacher from Scholars Academy in Conway, South Carolina, gave one of the most inspirational testimonials for the We the People program:

I first became involved with the We the People (WTP) program in 2002. Over the last 14 years I have employed the curriculum in U.S. History and U.S. Government classes and taught the content in a stand-alone course. I have taken students to the state competition eight times and my students won on six of those occasions. For several years, I have had the opportunity to serve as a judge at the state level and as a timekeeper at nationals. It has also been my pleasure to share the curriculum with other teachers in my state. At one time I was the WTP coordinator for my congressional district and I currently serve as a teacher mentor for the James Madison Legacy Project in South Carolina.

It is with this background that I can confidently say that the WTP program changes the lives of the students who participate in it. Through the exploration of the foundations and implementation of government, students are empowered to become agents of change. They no longer see government as some faraway entity that hands down dictates but rather they see government as a product of its people. Several of my former WTP students work on Capitol Hill, but just as impactful are the former WTP students who fight for the environment, who engage in local politics, and who volunteer for worthwhile causes. One young woman is a former foster child who is now an attorney for a high-powered firm in Washington, DC. She recently began a charity that provides backpacks filled with toiletries, underwear and books for children in the foster system. Her own experiences made her aware of this need and WTP taught her that everyone can make a difference.

Through this program I have seen shy kids become leaders, angry students become purpose-driven, and cynical young people become emboldened with the knowledge that they can contribute to society. In addition, the curriculum teaches communication and research skills that students take with them to college and to the workplace. We the People is an incredible program that should be experienced by every student in the nation. By educating and empowering our citizenry, the program strengthens not only the lives of its participants but the very democracy in which we live.

In addition to our Center I am pleased to say that a number of other public- and private-sector groups at the national and state levels have been assisting schools and teachers to help improve student understanding of the U.S. Constitution. At the national level these include the Bill of Rights Institute, the Constitutional Rights Foundations of Los Angeles and Chicago, Close Up, iCivics, James Madison’s Montpelier, the National Constitution Center, and Street Law, Inc. In addition to these efforts there are groups in every state working to develop greater public understanding and appreciation of our constitutional heritage, many of which are supported by state and local bar associations and other public-minded organizations.

Former congressman Lee Hamilton, whom our Center has been pleased to collaborate with for many years, said it best in one of his speeches entitled “What We Owe Our Young People.”

When we fail to educate our young people about our history and our representative democracy, we miss an opportunity to enrich their lives. We also miss an opportunity to enrich our country through their involvement. Our responsibility is to teach our young people the American story. We must instill in them a deep and abiding understanding and appreciation of our heritage.

It’s not enough to venerate the Constitution; we need to help our youth understand its significance as the guiding structure and inspiration for our democracy. That is the most urgent mission of the Center for Civic Education.

Please send me your reactions to this article, suggest improvements, and let me know of other topics we should be discussing by emailing me at

Charles N. Quigley is the executive director of the Center for Civic Education. He is broadly recognized as one of the most prominent curriculum and program developers in the field of civic education. Quigley is the author and editor of many textbooks, curricular materials, e-publications, and articles on civic education. He is the creator of We the People: The Citizen and the Constitution, Project Citizen, the CIVITAS Model Civic Education Curriculum Framework, the National Standards for Civics and Government, and the Civitas International Programs. He has served as a senior consultant and organizer for numerous civic education reform efforts, including two White House conferences, four Congressional Conferences on Civic Education, and the National Commission on Civic Renewal. He currently directs the James Madison Legacy Project.

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