ANALYSIS: The Chamber of Commerce intervenes in civics education crisis

In the second annual Civics Bee sponsored by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation, middle schoolers are demonstrating a possible antidote to schools' assault on American ideals.

The Civics Bee is a departure from what the Heritage Foundation calls 'action civics,' or encouraging participation in progressive political causes while failing to teach 'the nation’s Founding principles.'

A civics quiz bowl is connecting students to opportunities that, over the past two decades, they have been less likely to encounter in school. 

Local chambers of commerce in Craig, Colo.State College, Pa., and Lima, Ohio, recently shared their accounts of hosting the National Civics Bee alongside 37 other cities. In the second annual competition sponsored by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation, middle schoolers across the nation are demonstrating a possible antidote to K-12 and higher education’s assault on American ideals.  

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The Civics Bee is a departure from what a 2020 Heritage Foundation report calls “action civics.” Schools that teach action civics encourage participation in progressive political causes while failing to teach “the nation’s Founding principles,” according to Heritage. 

But Civics Bees in Craig, State College, and Lima combine knowledge with action on bipartisan issues. 

Lauren Hilley of the Craig Chamber of Commerce told Campus Reform that Civics Bee participants study the nation’s founding documents. They write essays on public safety, wildlife management, and other problem areas that they see in their communities. 

While the vast majority of young Americans fail citizenship tests, students in Lima’s competition study the questions needed to pass, including “Which amendment to the Constitution abolished slavery?”

State College participants “grow their understanding of, and appreciation for, the rights and duties of American citizenship,” according to a local news outlet. Like the other Civics Bees, middle schoolers enter the competition by submitting an essay and then competing in a quiz bowl. Finalists move on to the competition hosted by Pennsylvania’s chamber in June 2023. 

On the U.S. Chamber’s website, President Carolyn Cawley says that “informed and active citizens make for a strong country, a strong economy, and a strong workforce.” For Cawley, “prosperity depends on the strength of all three, and so does the long-term health of America’s economy.”

Civics education is not as valued in a public school system that emphasizes other subjects to prepare students for the workforce. 

A 2020 brief from the Brookings Institution shows that students have not seen the same improvements in civics test scores as they have in reading and math. The brief points out possible reasons that schools sideline civics, including an anxiety dating back to the Space Race: the effort to prevent other countries from outpacing the U.S. in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).  

Brookings also writes that the bipartisan push over the past two decades to hold teachers accountable through standardized tests means that schools might be less concerned with quality civics education than they are with reading and math. 

The brief supports the U.S. Chamber’s conclusion by arguing that the twenty-first-century economy depends on more than literacy and numeracy. Civics education, the brief suggests, could be vital for imparting critical thinking, communication, and other skills and values that employers seek but reportedly cannot find in Generation Z, or those currently in or just completing their K-12 and college educations. 

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When the military reported low enlistment rates, the head of recruitment for the Air Force said that the branch was changing its marketing strategy because “Generation Z is not patriotic.” While both the military and students’ civics education traditionally united them by what they have in common as Americans, members of Generation Z are more likely to pick career fields that reflect their individual values, according to Campus Reform

Defense is not the only industry impacted by generational differences. An owner of package shipping stations recently told The Wall Street Journal that he has to hire older workers if he wants employees who show up on time, interact with customers, and work hard–a move that others are making as “old-fashioned grinders appeal to employers.”

In an interview with Campus Reform, Hilley suggests that, in the process of becoming civically engaged, Civics Bee participants develop the skills and values necessary for the workforce. 

Hilley, the coordinator of the Craig Chamber’s Civics Bee, says that students are problem-solving by writing proposals that include “localizing supply chains and markets,” “reusing existing infrastructure from coal to solar energy,” and “economic diversification.” 

“Only a couple of our students have received civic/government/American history education through their schooling,” she continues. “All of them are learning more by preparing for this competition.”

Students are “getting involved and having conversations with potential stakeholders and others; [and] they are learning about grants and fundraising, local civic and nonprofit organizations, and partnerships with agencies, businesses, and others in the community,” Hilley told Campus Reform

“And their preparations for public speaking, writing, and reading the Framers’ text,” she writes, “is setting them up to be more articulate and informed citizens.”

Campus Reform contacted all relevant parties listed for comment and will update this article accordingly.