At its most fundamental level, civic education involves teaching and learning focused on the knowledge, skills, and dispositions that members of a community need in order to participate in and sustain that community (Campbell, Levinson, & Hess, 2012). Nonetheless, this simple definition belies a great deal of complexity; for instance, what is the nature of community? Is it defined through the formal boundaries of municipalities, states, and nations, or through the informal shared interests, identities, and concerns of individuals? What values and beliefs sustain that community? What should young members be taught to know and do in order to demonstrate belonging and engagement with it? Who should be doing the teaching?

This litany of questions – and the lack of easy answers – helps to explain why the nature and purpose of civic education is a perennial source of disagreement and debate among researchers, policymakers, and teachers (Tyack & Cuban, 1997). Responses to these questions are also contextual based on the structure of the body politic in which civic education is taking place. Because democracy in the United States context relies upon the active participation of citizens to maintain the project of self-governance, its survival depends upon individuals achieving a substantial amount of knowledge about how political systems work and their role in those systems (Delli Carpini & Keeter, 1996).