Social Studies

Civics Education Overhaul Nears Completion in Massachusetts

By Stephen Sawchuk — July 26, 2018 2 min read
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Editor’s note: After this story ran, Gov. Charles Baker returned the bill to the legislature requesting minor changes. Those amendments underscore that civic action projects should be non-partisan, and that students who choose not to participate in the class projects should be given alternative opportunities to develop their civic skills. The bill was signed into law Nov. 18.

Massachusetts legislators have approved a bill to overhaul civics education that would make the Bay State the first in the nation to require schools to coordinate “student led” civics projects. It needs only Gov. Charlie Baker’s signature.

The bill has been in development for months as lawmakers debated whether to make the projects a graduation requirement for students. The final bill doesn’t quite go that far, instead putting the responsibility on each school serving 8th graders and each high school to provide at least one project to students.

Those projects, it says, “may be individual, small group, or classwide,” and should be designed to help students make logical arguments and support claims, and to understand the connection among federal, state, and local policies, including those that affect their own communities.

In addition, the bill:

  • Requires civics to be taught alongside social studies and U.S. history, including lesson on the founding documents and knowing how to analyze written and digital media.
  • Requires those classes to include the study of voter registration and disenfranchised populations.
  • Creates a Civics Project Trust Fund to provide professional development on the new requirements and to update the state’s history curriculum frameworks.
  • Authorizes an 8th grade civics challenge.
  • Establishes a high school voter challenge program to boost voter registration in Massachusetts.

Massachusetts’ current laws are far less specific about the topics students should encounter in history and civics and don’t require any kind of civics projects.

Civics has experienced something of a renaissance, with more than a dozen states now requiring students to take the U.S. citizenship test in high school. But as civics education advocates hasten to point out, many states focus on book learning, rather than on cultivating the skills and dispositions of a civically engaged person. The Massachusetts law, with its emphasis on student projects, nods in the direction of “action civics,” an approach that generally means students take the lead in identifying a problem in their communities and take action to address it through local civic channels.

Civics Overhaul a Long Time Coming

Advocates for civic education have been pushing legislation to boost civics at least since 2012, when a state-created commission issued a report on the topic. And a coalition grew up to support those efforts. It counts iCivics, the Massachusetts branch of the National Council of the Social Studies, and a Tufts University center among its partners.

Massachusetts does not currently administer a history exam in high school, but the bill makes clear that civics would have to be part of that exam if one is adopted.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.