Action civics

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Action Civics is an applied civic education process in which:

  • Participants’ voices are encouraged, valued and incorporated to the fullest extent possible
  • Experiences, knowledge, perspectives and concerns of participants are incorporated to the fullest extent possible
  • Participants learn by doing, with a focus on collective action
  • Participants’ reflection and analysis are central to the process

In contrast to other more traditional forms of civic education that primarily focus on providing students with content knowledge about citizens’ rights and responsibilities. Action civics aims to develop participants’ civic skills, knowledge, and dispositions. This approach is often used to educate and empower young people to be active participants in their communities. Advocates of action civics contend that this approach prepares students for college, careers, and citizenship in the 21st century.


Participants in action civics may engage in any of a variety of activities, including but not limited to the following:

  • Working on electoral and/or issue-based campaigns;
  • Serving as Student Election Judges;
  • Participating in debate and speech competitions;
  • Taking action on issues affecting their communities;
  • Participating in mock (or real) elections;
  • Serving on boards and councils that present policy recommendations to elected and appointed officials with decision-making power;
  • Organizing and/or participating in a protest or rally in support of/against a particular issue or cause;
  • Donating directly to or running philanthropic campaigns to support a particular cause or community-based program or project;
  • Vote and/or registering voters;
  • Advocating on behalf of a cause via news outlets (including social media);

Organizations embracing action civics[edit]

National Action Civics Collaborative[edit]

In June 2010, a number of these organizations from Massachusetts, Illinois, Colorado, New York and California came together to form the National Action Civics Coalition (NACC) to share their research, evaluation methods, and to promote the concept of Action Civics nationally.[3] More information is available at its website:

Case for action civics[edit]

Advocates for this kind of civic education argue that when done well, it accomplishes a plethora of educational objectives including:

Increased civic participation[edit]

  • “By giving students the experience applying 21st century skills to bring about change in their own lives and communities, Action Civics helps schools fulfill both their academic and civic missions.” [4]
  • Students who learn about current events in the classroom are more likely to have civic skills and be civically engaged after they graduate.[5]
  • “Through this model, students do civics and behave as citizens by engaging in a cycle of research, action, and reflection about problems they care about personally while learning about deeper principles of effective civic and especially political action... These steps clearly encourage students to take ownership of a civic challenge that they care about, support their acquisition of the knowledge and skills needed to take meaningful action, expect students to take that action - to learn through citizenship and not just about citizenship - and then challenge students to reflect upon the experience as a means of consolidating their learning and empowering them to take effective action in the future.” [6]
  • Extracurricular activities have been shown to encourage participants to be more politically active later in life. In particular, activities concerning community service, representation, and speaking in public forums have been shown to have the largest positive influence on future political participation.[7]

Increased academic attainment[edit]

  • A national study uncovered that low socio-economic status students who participate in service learning or community service have better grades, better attendance, and feel more bonded to school than their peers.[8]
  • Civic engagement in high school significantly increases college graduation odds, even when controlling for socioeconomic and demographic factors. By becoming engaged in their communities, students grow to understand the relevance of their education, which increases their academic motivation.[9]

Closing the civic achievement gap[edit]

  • “[Research] suggests that opportunities carefully orchestrated yet not overly structured that invite [youth from challenging urban and educational environments] to apprentice into the world of civic and political engagement can have tremendous results. These opportunities [...] appear likely to impact the youth’s knowledge, skills, and dispositions in enduring ways. They even appear to have impacted the civic engagement of the [participating] youths’ families and the civic life of their communities in many cases.” [10]
  • “The evidence does suggest that these interventions do have significant potential to reduce the civic empowerment gap by setting youth on a path to engagement that they wouldn’t have found on their own but will continue down once they’re on it... [it] seems that initial interest can be certainly be made rather than born: in other words, if young people are led or even forced to participate in guided experiential civic activities that are engaging, they may well become more civically engaged in the long run.” [11]
  • A longitudinal study of 4,000 CPS students determined that in-class civic learning opportunities and service learning experiences have the greatest impact on students’ commitment to civic participation of any other influence – including school, family, or community.[12]
  • By teaching civic skills and increasing civic motivation through student-centered, action-oriented, community-based learning, Action Civics may help close the civic engagement gap.[13]

Discussion of Action Civics[edit]


  • Arne Duncan, U.S. Secretary of Education, stated "Unlike traditional civic education, civic learning and democratic engagement 2.0 is more ambitious and participatory than in the past. To paraphrase Justice O’Connor, the new generation of civic education initiatives move beyond your “grandmother’s civics” to what has been labeled “action civics.”" [14]
  • Peter Levine, director of CIRCLE at Tufts University, advocates for creating "space for open-ended politics," which he argues action civics can do.[15]


  • Some scholars, such as Chester Finn of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, argue that Action Civics aims “to turn children into activists” and inappropriately promotes a “communitarian view that issues facing society are best dealt with through group action, by people joining hands and working together rather than through the political process.” These detractors contend that civic educators should instead place emphasis on “infusing kids with basic knowledge about government, and understanding of the merits (as well as the shortcomings) of American democracy, and a sense of what can still be called patriotism: the belief that this country and its values need to be defended.” [16]
  • The Heartland Institute similarly argues that Action Civics is actually “a mechanism to make students political activists for various favored adult causes” and is therefore “controversial because it uses taxpayer dollars to support a political party or partisan ideology.” [17]
  • Others have argued that this type of civics negatively highlights America’s problems rather than its promise, foundations and values.
  • In addition, some critics argue that Action Civics prioritizes the development of civic skills to the exclusion of content knowledge - a preference that bothers those who advocate for the importance of civic knowledge such as Constitutional rights and responsibilities, government structures, and so on. A 2011 policy brief from the American Education Institute notes that many citizens are “reluctant to recommend that high schools promote civic behaviors like community service and raising money for causes, believing instead that teaching facts and concepts should take priority.” [18]
  • It is also difficult to assess students’ outcomes because at this time there is no set state standards or benchmarks to measure students’ development.
  • Others argue that Action Civics is synonymous to service learning, which can be seen as a soft (and often, a one-shot) approach to community problem-solving and lacking in academic value when it is disconnected from the classroom experience.


  1. ^ "Youth On Board". Youth On Board. Retrieved 2012-06-25. 
  2. ^ "Stepping Up To The Call For A Better Politics". Retrieved 2015-12-22. 
  3. ^ "National Action Civics Collaborative". Archived from the original on 2012-10-29. Retrieved 2012-06-25. 
  4. ^ "ASCD Express 7.14 - Colleges, Careers, Citizenship". Retrieved 2012-06-25. 
  5. ^ Kahne, Joseph, and Middaugh, Ellen (2008). "Democracy for Some: The Civic Opportunity Gap in High School" (PDF). CIRCLE Working Paper 59. Retrieved 2014-02-19. 
  6. ^ Levinson, M. (2012) No Citizen Left Behind. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. p. 224-225
  7. ^ McFarland, D.A. & Thomas, R.J. (2006). Bowling Young: "How Youth Voluntary Associations Influence Adult Political Participation". American Sociological Review, 71, 401-425.
  8. ^ Scales, P.C., Roehlkepartian, E.C., Neal, M., Kielsmeier, J.C., & Benson, P.L. (2006). Reducing Academic Achievement Gaps: The Role of Community Service and Service Learning. Journal of Experiential Education, 29, 38-60.
  9. ^ Dávila, A., & Mora, M. T. (2007). "Civic engagement and high school academic progress: Analysis using NELS data". Medford, MA: The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement. Retrieved 2014-02-19. 
  10. ^ Bixby, Janet. Chapter 10: To Think, Live and Breathe Politics in Bixby & Pace, Educating Democratic Citizens in Troubled Times: Qualitative Studies of Current Efforts. SUNY. 2008
  11. ^ Levinson, M. (2012) No Citizen Left Behind. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. p. 243-44
  12. ^ Sporte, S.E. & Kahne, J.E. (2007) Educating for Democracy: Lessons from Chicago. Consortium on Chicago School Research at the University of Chicago.
  13. ^ Pope A, Stolte L, Cohen AK. (2011). Closing the Civic Engagement Gap: The Potential of Action Civics. Social Education, 75(5): 265-268.
  14. ^ "Secretary Arne Duncan’s Remarks at “For Democracy’s Future” Forum at the White House | DemocracyU". 2012-01-20. Retrieved 2014-02-19. 
  15. ^ "action civics goes mainstream and gets controversial « Peter Levine". 2012-01-23. Retrieved 2014-02-19. 
  16. ^ "Should schools turn children into activists? And should Uncle Sam help?". Retrieved 2012-06-25. 
  17. ^ "Research & Commentary: Civic Education | Heartland Institute". Retrieved 2012-06-25. 
  18. ^ "Contested Curriculum" (PDF). Retrieved 2014-02-19.