Social Studies

Bipartisan Civics and History Guidelines Get a Dose of Federal Funding

By Sarah Schwartz — January 11, 2023 4 min read
photo collage of American Flag, Capitol building and the United States Constitution
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A set of history and civics guidelines that aim to chart a path forward for K-12 educators, amid intense political polarization and increased scrutiny of teachers, has received a second boost of federal funding.

The $1.7 million will help organizations design and curate materials, and support teachers as they work to put the framework into action in their classrooms.

The guidelines, the Roadmap to Educating for American Democracy, were developed by a national panel of academics, educators, and civic nonprofit leaders, funded in part by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the U.S. Department of Education. The nonprofit iCivics and research centers at Harvard, Arizona State, and Tufts universities led the effort.

Released in 2021, the Roadmap centers inquiry, posing big questions about history and civic participation that students investigate and discuss. Central to the framework is the idea of “reflective patriotism”—encouraging students to celebrate American ideals while also engaging in clear-eyed investigation of darker chapters of the country’s history.

The new funding from the NEH will be focused on putting this framework into practice in the classroom.

The Roadmap isn’t a set of standards or a curriculum. It’s more like a series of guiding questions and themes. That makes it flexible: States could use it as inspiration as they revise social studies standards; districts could review curricula against it or develop their instructional priorities around it.

But that open-endedness also means that teachers need direction and support to use the framework in their classrooms. That’s where most of this new funding is directed.

The initiative’s implementation team, which includes representatives from civic education groups, universities, and schools, will work to curate materials that align with the framework, build a community of educator leaders, grow professional development opportunities, and support research and evaluation of the implementation.

The biggest chunk of the funding—$600,000—is going toward doing this work in elementary grades. Implementation teams at Harvard will distribute the money through competitive grants.

There’s a need for more support in K-5, said Louise Dubé, iCivics’ executive director, and the chair of the implementation consortium. Social studies isn’t tested in elementary school, so the subject fights for time with high-stakes subjects like reading and math, she said.

Supporting teachers amid mounting political pressures

It’s hard to know exactly how widespread the framework’s reach has been so far, though there are a few indicators that it’s gaining some traction.

New York City has integrated the Roadmap into its Civics for All initiative, and it’s embedded in some of Massachusetts’ state civics guidance, said Dubé. iCivics is also working with New Mexico, Colorado, and Oklahoma to expand use of the framework there.

More than 190 organizations have voiced public support for the Roadmap, and the initiative’s website includes a library of resources teachers can use to implement the framework.

Still, whether individual teachers are shifting their practice is an open question. “That process of integrating into instruction, and being supported in that, that’s going to take some time,” Dubé said.

The Roadmap is also being rolled out amid renewed “history wars,” as Republican legislators in 17 states have banned teachers from discussing race and gender in certain ways, or prescribed how schools can present the American story.

The framework was developed with input from experts and scholars across the political spectrum. Still, it has been caught in the crossfire, with conservative groups and commentators arguing that it is dismissive of the country’s founding principles and encourages teachers to push their own viewpoints onto students.

Dubé rejected these characterizations. “We need to have students consider a plurality of points of view,” she said. “If you’re not going to support that, then I question what the criticism is really about.”

The Roadmap poses questions, she said. “We’re not prescribing how you answer those questions. I think we want to let communities and federalism take over.”

It’s important to acknowledge the pressure teachers feel in this environment, said Danielle Allen, the director of Harvard’s Edmond & Lily Safra Center for Ethics and one of the principal investigators leading the creation of the framework.

“We have this incredible history in this country that requires weaving together narratives that come from so many different lines of experience,” she said.

Part of Harvard’s implementation work will be expanding communities of practice for teachers. Educators with different experiences, from different parts of the country, might have different ideas about how best to do this—and that’s OK, Allen said.

“In order to achieve that disposition of reflective patriotism, you have to have practices of conversation across lines of disagreement and debate. … In some sense, what we’re asking the nationwide community of educators to do is the same thing that we’re asking students to learn.”

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