January 17, 2024


A National Civics Competition For Middle Schoolers? It’s A Timely Idea.

Published in Forbes by Senior Contributor Frederick Hess on January 17, 2024.

Americans don’t know a lot about American government. Last year, the “Nation’s Report Card” showed how poorly our students are faring when it comes to U.S. history and civics: Just 13 percent of students were deemed “proficient” in U.S. history and just 22 percent in civics. Meanwhile, a third of adults don’t know the three branches of government and 72% don’t know that the First Amendment protects the freedom of the press.

Such results would be alarming in the best of times. And, it should go without saying, in an era of toxic discourse and institutional distrust, that we are not living in the best of times. That’s what makes the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation’s National Civics Bee, launched two years ago, such a timely idea. Parents and educators of middle schoolers should be advised: Next Tuesday, January 22, is the deadline for interested students to submit the required essay.

The National Civics Bee is modeled on the familiar National Spelling Bee. Now, as a guy who once taught high school civics (albeit a very long time ago), I’ll admit up front that I’ve got a soft spot for anything that gets tweens thinking about civic life, civil debate, and citizenship. Launched in five communities in 2022, the competition this year will encompass about 30 states and, for the first time, a national final in Washington D.C. Officials plan to have the competition in every state by 2026, for the 250th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

Participants pen a 500 word essay on a community problem and offer suggestions for tackling it. Entries are judged based on their demonstration of civic principles, use of data, and ability to acknowledge opposing points of view. The twenty highest scoring entries in each community are then invited to participate in the local live competition. During the Bee, local finalists answer multiple-choice questions. The questions are based on “guiding questions” provided by the National Assessment of Educational Progress. For those wondering what kinds of questions get asked, sample queries include:

“What is the supreme law of the land?”

A. the Declaration of Independence

B. the Bill of Rights

C. the U.S. Constitution

D. the Articles of Confederation

“What do an absolute monarchy and an autocracy have in common?”

A. a written constitution

B. a national court system

C. a single legislative body

D. a single ruler

This November, state finalists will gather at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Grand Hall in Washington D.C. for the national competition. Local, state, and federal winners will be awarded cash prizes. And for students seeking study help, the acclaimed Khan Academy has developed the “Khanmigo National Civics Bee”, a free AI-powered teaching assistant.

The Daniels Fund, a Denver-based foundation, has provided substantial support for the Civics Bee. Daniels Fund president Hanna Skandera explains why: “Schools have become theater for adult culture wars, completely missing the opportunity and the nuance of our constitutional order.” That’s why, she says, “Our solution to this crisis will not and cannot come solely through our schools.” U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation president Carolyn Cawley has sensibly urged community leaders to view this as one part of a broader effort. She’s argued, “Schools cannot do this work alone . . . We invite companies to join us and invest in educational programs for employees [and] partner with local schools.”

I can’t fault a reader who’s thinking, “You know, communities coming together to cheer a civics competition just doesn’t feel very 2024.” Fair enough. But it’s worth seeing if we can start to change that. And this model has a lot going for it. Each opportunity for communities to gather, whether for Friday night football or a Civics Bee, is valuable at a time when many local ties have frayed. Students seeing peers celebrated for caring about civics and citizenship is a very good thing. And the reminder that this stuff really matters is a healthy message for all of us to hear.

In much of education, an unhealthy notion has taken root which holds that “mere knowledge” just isn’t necessary in an era of Google. Some have concluded that ChatGPT knows this stuff, so students don’t need to. Those who train and support educators have too often bought into such notions, which is why barely half of social studies teachers say it’s essential for students to know about separation of powers or checks and balances.

Citizens who don’t understand civic virtue or republican government are ripe targets for demagogues, conspiracy theorists, and bad faith actors. Helping students understand their remarkable republic and what it needs to thrive is to equip them to defend it from the vocal ideologues, left and right, who’ve lost faith in the American Project.

The National Civics Bee isn’t an answer to our challenges. But it’s an important step in the right direction. Now we just need to take many, many more.