How 3 States Are Digging In on Civics Education
By Stephen Sawchuk
What can states do to develop better citizens? CivXNow, a coalition of some 90 organizations spearheaded by the online curriculum group iCivics, has some ideas. The group recently unveiled a policy menu: Revise social science standards to prioritize civics. Align tests to them. Improve teacher training. Give youth a voice at schools and in local government.
K-12 education has been down this road before, without a lot of progress to show for it. An early-2000s push organized by many of the same players did not dramatically change the landscape.
What’s different from before, the coalition says, is the context. There are now success stories from states that have pioneered new civics education laws. There’s a research base on civics education that, while young, is increasingly robust. Finally, there is public recognition that something has gone deeply wrong in the state of American civil discourse, and that schools play some role in mitigating it.
Indeed, there are some signs of a legislative appetite for additional reforms. More than 80 pieces of civics education legislation were introduced across 30-odd states in the 2018-19 legislative session, according to Ted McConnell, the executive director of the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools, one of the CivXNow coalition members. And last year, the National Conference of State Legislatures counted nearly 115 civics education-related bills.
Getting the best ideas to the finish line is another story.
U.S. public education is rooted in the belief by early American leaders that the most important knowledge to impart to young people is what it means to be a citizen. If America is experiencing a civic crisis now, as many say it is, schools may well be failing at that job.
To understand the role of education in preparing the next generation of citizens, Education Week began a series of articles, surveys, and projects in early 2018. This article is the latest installment in that initiative.
Some of the state legislation focuses on having all students take the same citizenship test used as part of the naturalization process—an approach most of the CivXNow coalition members believe is too narrow. (The Scottsdale, Ariz.-based Joe Foss Institute, which has pushed for the use of the test, is notably absent from the coalition.)
But inertia is probably the biggest challenge.
“It’s rare you’re going to have anyone against civics, but fundamentally it’s just not a priority,” said Shawn Healy, the director of democracy initiatives at the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, a key player in Illinois’ civics education efforts.
CivXNow says states can pick and choose from among the policies, though they’re most powerful in concert. It will also consider putting out model legislation in the future to guide states.
So how will the coalition know its push is succeeding?
“I wouldn’t measure success in one legislative session; it will take two to three years. We want to call back the time that’s been taken away from civics and social studies over the last 20-something years,” McConnell said, referring to the standards and accountability movement many civics advocates blame for focusing schools too narrowly on reading and math at the expense of history and civics. “ ... When a critical mass of states have done that, we’ll know we’ve had success.”
In the meantime, the civics and social studies lobby will need to beef up its own advocacy. Potentially, they could take a page from arts education advocates, who have been much more successful at making a research-based case for the importance of those subjects—such as by inserting the arts into the ubiquitous discussion of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), now often called “STEAM.”
“My hope is that we can get our act together on that front,” Healy said. “It’s a been a bitter irony for me that the civics and social studies community has done a pretty bad job of advocating for ourselves.”
Below, Education Week briefly profiles three states at various stages of revising civics education requirements in their states—and what they’ve learned along the way.
Image Credits: Getty
A version of this article appeared in the July 17, 2019 edition of Education Week as How 3 States Are Digging in on Civics Education