Interest in Civics Education ‘Will Not Last Forever,’ an Insider Warns

By Stephen Sawchuk — February 06, 2020 10 min read
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A leader in the civics education has penned a tough-love letter for colleagues in the insular community, congratulating them for making the subject more prominent but also issuing a warning of sorts: It’s time to prioritize next steps before the chattering classes move on.

Fresh out of college, Scott Warren co-founded Generation Citizen, a hands-on “action civics” provider, in 2009. Though not the first group to popularize that approach to civics—which prioritizes having students collectively research a community problem and use civic channels to try to solve it—it has helped the idea go mainstream in the intervening years. Generation Citizen has also been an effective legislative advocate, particularly in its support of a bill strengthening civics in Massachusetts.

Warren announced last November that he will step down from the organization in June, and the letter reflects his insights from working in the field for a decade. It’s must-read that, while not a formal airing-out of dirty laundry, nevertheless does challenge the field to spell out what it stands for and make that case to philanthropies and lawmakers while interest in civics ed. is at a high. (He is not exaggerating the whimsical nature of K-12 policy trends: Does anyone remember the teacher-evaluation craze of eight years ago? Me neither.)

Among other things, he notes that civics-ed. groups have had too many convenings to try to come up with a definitive vision for civics education, but not enough action and follow through. Their leadership is not very diverse. Long-simmering ideological and pedagogical differences continue to hamper a cohesive message for the field. And there’s some jostling for pride of place among the groups.

Education Week sat down with Warren to discuss these points in a Q & A. Below is a transcript, edited for length.

Q: You began Generation Citizen in 2009. Can you talk about the landscape of civics education now compared to what it was like when you first started? How has it evolved?

A: There is a lot more interest in civics education in the last 10 years. There’s more interest from philanthropists, there’s more interest from districts, there’s more interest from educators, and obviously there’s an upsurge in youth activism as well. And this is from a nonpartisan perspective, but the general dysfunction of politics makes people want to look for different types of solutions.

And I think that ramifications of not prioritizing for civics education are more evident than they’ve ever been. You know, I joked that when I started Generation Citizen, I would tell people, “Yes, we’re about educating young people to be active, engaged citizens and getting civics back in the classroom.” And people would laugh and say, “Well, you know, what’s next?” And now people say, “Oh my God, how can we get this everywhere?” So, I do think that there’s a recognition that this is necessary.

I think that there’s more organizations around. Obviously, there’s been some huge legislative successes. There’s a bigger geographic footprint, and there is more money. I think that there’s still a long way to go, and I think some of the conversations are similar to the ones that we had at the beginning. And I will say that most of the organizations and organizational leaders are fairly similar to the ones that were around 10 years ago. But there’s more of a footprint and there’s more energy, for sure.

Q: You mentioned the geographic footprint. Sometimes, it does seem that certain places have far more opportunities for civics education, or providers to choose from. Can you talk a little bit about what’s going to need to happen to make sure that all students have access to a really high-quality program in civics?

A: Yeah, [the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement] had a report that came out a few years ago that talked about these civic deserts, both in urban areas and rural areas. I will say I see this as a little bit of a nonprofit problem, in addition to a civics education problem, in that the providers tend to consolidate in the main urban hubs. There is a lot of need in those places, [but] I think some of it is that, you know, a lot of the folks that run nonprofits tend to live in those areas. And I also think that there’s more money there, and so both of those are relevant. GC has tried to start tackling this head on, in Oklahoma specifically, but we have also done some programming and places like rural Alabama and Salt Lake City, Utah.

This is also a political problem in just how segregated we’ve gotten in terms of our own political beliefs, too. And I think civics education unfortunately can fall into that as well, as can funders.

Q: Civics is not a field that gets a lot of federal support. And as a nation, we’ve not paid attention to social studies in the same way that we have to math and literacy. So, what needs to happen to get this funded? Whose responsibility is that?

A: No. 1, there has to be a recognition from funders that they need to fund this more. I think that they can be a little risk-averse on civics education without seeing a through line. I think sometimes they are reluctant to get very involved. If I could design a funding strategy, a big part of it would be research and evaluation. There’s not enough comprehensive research done on what effective and holistic civics education looks like. I do think there needs to be more localized proof points. I think that they should be in places like the Deep South and places that are further away from opportunity. And then there needs to be extensive funding for policy and advocacy. I think Massachusetts demonstrated the potential of what can happen when you focus on that.

So I think that there needs to be a bigger strategy. The last thing I’ll say, and again I wrote about this [in the letter], I do think that there needs to be a more intensive infrastructure [and] coordinating entity. I do think CivXNow [a coalition headed by curriculum provider iCivics] and the Woodrow Wilson [National Fellowship] Foundation are attempting to sort of draw the auspices of what could this look like. I just don’t think that anybody actually knows what that looks like. And I think that that’s a little bit problematic, because you have sort of multiple entities vying to be the entity.

It’s not that the funders need to pick favorites, but there has to be a little bit of an [attempt to] actually sort this out.

Q: There are a few elements of your letter that I would characterize as being a bit of “tough love.” One has to do with the diversity of the field. It continues to be very white and not particularly reflective of the demographics of our students. How does that affect the conversation? How do we change that?

A: First of all, and I think most importantly, there are blind spots that emerge where we’re unable to, in an increasingly diversified country, understand what an effective, relevant civics education looks like if we don’t at all reflect the student body that is increasingly becoming what America is today. So there’s just substantive problems there. And then there’s also just huge perceptual problems, and the civics education field has historically traditionally, and rightly, been seen as too white and too old. I mean, this is an ideological challenge, but I think that a lot of folks view with suspicion [whether] we are looking to recreate a democracy that hasn’t worked for too many people by forming a specific type of civics education.

I think if you’re talking about leadership [of civics education organizations], there’s two ways to do it. Either folks that have been around for a while have to actually look intentionally about bringing in diverse leadership, either at the top level or as they’re transitioning themselves, or there have to be more organizations.

Q: Another thing that you really hammer home is the point that this moment for investment and attention to civics education is not going to last forever. What is the biggest challenge that’s hampering the field from seizing the moment?

A: I think it’s increasingly clear, and I mean this from a nonpartisan perspective, that our very democracy is at risk. Just look at the last week [with the conclusion of the impeachment trial and rocky Iowa caucuses]. And I think that people see civics education as a necessary reform to that. It’s not sufficient, but it’s important. I think that there could be ramifications on what happens further down this election cycle, too. So some of it is just the geopolitical nature of the movement and some of this is how funders and things work. I mean, we’re always wintering fads, and fads don’t last forever, and fads have got to be picked up to some extent.

There have been too many convenings. There have been too many [conversations] like, “Let’s wait a few months to get our stuff together and see if a funding strategy is going to emerge.” There have to be some big bets. There’s got to be some big bets in evaluation. There’s got to be big bets in terms of a funder initiative focused on diversifying the leadership of civics education organizations.

I do think that there’s probably a little too much with organizations, ourselves included, trying to finagle and trying to position themselves, rather than recognize the importance of actually working together and collaborating at this moment in time.

Q: Scott, what do you see as being the biggest curricular challenge? Is it the polarization in the country that makes it harder for teachers to actually teach this? Is it the lack of a soup-to-nuts curriculum for teachers?

A: I’d step back a little bit to say that I think it’s partially curriculum and partially training. I don’t think teachers receive enough effective training on how to teach this work. And if I could have my druthers with action civics, you know, there’s principles that go along with action civics—student-centered pedagogy, democratic classroom teaching—that is as important as any curriculum. So I think there has to be a lot more investment in professional development as well.

From a curricular standpoint, I do think that a challenge is that it’s very difficult, perhaps impossible, to make this universal. Perhaps it shouldn’t be universal. In fact, civics is a very localized thing. I mean, if you’re talking about New York City government versus how the town in Nicut, Okla., operates, it’s much different, and it’s hard to make curriculum that fits both.

I also think—and this is something that we’re increasingly looking at with Generation Citizen—if you’re talking about a real civics curriculum that puts equity front and center, that honors the true history and challenges of democracy in this country, it’s actually written for different student populations. If they’re talking about working with students of color, if you’re talking about working with more affluent white students, curriculum should look different for those populations to create the conditions in which we can create a more equal politics and equal democracy. So I think that that’s something that’s a little challenging in terms of figuring out. It’s not like a math or literacy curriculum where there’s a right way of doing this.

Q: One element that has been missing from the civics ed. conversation, is the role that the media plays in talking and writing about civics education. What do you think education reporters should be thinking about as they hopefully write about this topic?

A: That’s an interesting question. I think it’s getting more intention and probably hasn’t even got enough of it. I mean, you all, Chalkbeat, The 74—there’s been some stuff.

I think the big opportunity is some student perspectives. They can play front and center in terms of how they view politics, and how they view this specific moment in time and how civics is or isn’t addressing that. And also the educator perspectives: How much are districts or schools encouraging them to do this work?

Image: Scott Warren, the CEO of Generation Citizen. Courtesy of Scott Warren.

A version of this news article first appeared in the District Dossier blog.