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.

About the Citizen Z Project

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.


Florida: The Trendsetter

The Sunshine state is often lauded for its cohesive push for civics education, thanks to a 2010 law bearing the name of the legendary Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. The law required a new middle school course and an aligned test to measure civics knowledge that makes up nearly a third of each student’s grade in that subject. It covers four main prongs, including the origins and purposes of law and governments; citizens’ rights and responsibilities, the political process, and the organization and function of government.

The state remains one of the few to emphasize civics at the middle school level. In most states, formal civics education begins at high school. Whatever students get before that is taught within a generic social studies or history class—often in a nuts-and-bolts or overly sentimentalized, patriotic way.

In a sense, Florida’s traditional standards-and-assessment approach to civics owes something to the same reform movement that culminated in the federal No Child Left Behind Act—the test-heavy law that many civics experts now blame for reducing time spent on the subject. But there is some truth to the adage that what’s tested gets taught, and scores on the middle school test have risen on the exam across the state since its introduction in 2013-14, and just over 70 percent of students earn passing scores.

A lesser known factor in Florida’s work is the central role played by the Lou Frey Institute at the University of Central Florida. Although not formally part of the state’s K-12 education bureaucracy, the center has become the de facto clearinghouse for materials and teacher training for the course.

Even before the law had been signed, the institute was laying the groundwork. In 2009, it began developing model civics lessons for teachers. In 2010, the state legislature began appropriating funds to support those efforts, and in 2011, the state education department gave the institute a grant to run teacher professional development.

“I will tell you that building the kind of support system we have been for Florida is crucial to success,” said L. Doug Dobson, the Lou Frey Institute’s executive director. “Otherwise you just pass a law and clap your hands and say you’re done, and whatever happens, happens.”

Districts initially struggled to unlearn some of their former practices to cover the much more extensive content requirements: “The pacing was really a hurdle for us,” said Robert Brazofsky, the executive director for social sciences for Miami-Dade county. But now, the district has two staff members devoted to civics who provide in-school supports to teachers, and thanks to the testing data, they’ve been able to target schools with lower passing rates for extra help.

Now that the law is nearly a decade old, some in Florida are trying to get their arms around its impact. The Lou Frey Institute has worked with interested counties to informally survey students at the end of the middle school course on their civic beliefs and attitudes.

In Miami-Dade, Brazofsky said, most students surveyed agree with broad civic notions, like the importance of helping others in need, but there is still work to be done translating knowledge into lifelong behaviors and beliefs. For example, only about half of students surveyed said they thought it was OK for newspapers to publish freely without government approval.

“To really support and improve the civic attitudes of young people in my opinion, a test is a good thing to have, but it doesn’t always lead to the attitudes, beliefs, and dispositions you would want as an engaged citizen,” he said.

State Republican leaders, meanwhile, wants to double down on core civics knowledge. Gov. Ron DeSantis signed an order directing high schools to prioritize the U.S. Constitution, and recent legislation requires the state to review the civics course’s curriculum and test and recommend changes.

What impact that will have next on the Sunshine State’s approach to civics has yet to be seen.


Illinois: The Apt Pupil

Until 2015, Illinois had some of the weakest civics requirements around, leading to great differences in how the topic was being taught.

So when Illinois added a brand-new requirement for a semester of high school civics that year, those in the state knew it would take some kind of entity, like Florida’s Lou Frey Institute, to keep implementation on the rails in the state. Ultimately, that’s taken the form of a sort of gentleman’s agreement between legislators and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, which pledged $1 million a year for three years to support the new learning—partly its own funding and the remainder raised from other philanthropies and donors.

Most of that has gone to support a crop of several dozen educators who work in concert with the state’s regional offices of education to supply training, resources, tips, and ideas to teachers about how to put the law into action.

For Bonnie Laughlin-Schultz, an associate professor of history and social science teaching coordinator at Eastern Illinois University, what’s groundbreaking about the law is not just the coursework requirement but also the specificity of the course content. The law says the class must include the topics of government institutions, service learning, simulations of the democratic process, and notably, discussion of “current and controversial events”—something even well-meaning teachers tend to ignore out of fear and discomfort.

“I think good social studies teachers were already doing many of those things, but it encouraged everyone to get on board,” said Laughlin-Schultz, who is one of the mentors in southeast Illinois. “Downstate, where I live, it gave teachers the ability to say: ‘No, I need to talk about controversial topics, it doesn’t matter what the political landscape is or whether administrators think it’s a good idea. It’s written into the law.’”

She said teachers have struggled most in understanding what service learning means in a civic education context.

“It’s not just a traditional ‘volunteer somewhere and keep a log of your hours’ thing—it is a much more intricate and authentic kind of experience. But that is intimidating to teachers,” she said.

To help them grasp the content, she hosts daylong civic engagement sessions at her university, where teachers and high school students from area schools meet to brainstorm steps they can take to address school issues, like presenting to the school board or writing a letter to a state representative. In effect, the workshops model the kinds of activities teachers can take back to their classrooms and enrich in a longer, more extended teaching unit.

Illinois’ entering high school freshman class of 2016, the first for whom the civics requirement took effect, begins its senior year this fall. In the meantime, Illinois is ready to expand its efforts. In May, the legislature passed a new law requiring a semester-long middle-grades civics course to complement the high school requirement. The bill, HB 2265, is currently awaiting Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s signature, and the McCormick Foundation is once again promising its financial support.


Massachusetts: The New Kid

With Gov. Charlie Baker’s approval last November, the Bay State became the first state to require each middle and high school to include at least one student-led civics project.

Massachusetts’ law is among the most specific passed in decades, specifying not just content but a particular teaching approach: The idea of civics projects reflects “action civics”—having students research and use local civics channels to solve problems in their community.

It’s the culmination of two separate efforts in the state to improve civics that have fortuitously converged.

First, beginning in 2016, the state education department started revising its history and social science standards for the first time since 2003. The completed standards, unveiled in 2018, put a much heavier emphasis on civics learning throughout the grades and features a particular emphasis on civics in 8th grade. That grade’s standards now focus on the democratic foundations of the United States and their connections to the present, but isn’t a traditional, chronological history course.

Second, after several false starts, the civics-project legislation finally gained traction last year. It was heavily supported by a state coalition, most notably by Generation Citizen, a nonprofit, and the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation. The law authorizes a Civics Project Trust Fund, to be supported with state funds and outside grants, to support training and implementation on the projects. (A down payment on that new fund is currently caught up in budget negotiations: A Senate budget bill included $1.5 million for the fund while the House’s did not.)

It’s early days yet for implementation. The state education department has held regional sessions to familiarize teachers with the framework and has given out small training grants; in the future, it aims to supply some model lessons as well. And it’s now working to craft guidelines on how to approach the new project requirements, and how they might differ in an 8th grade and high school context.

Meanwhile, many districts have traditionally taught world history in 8th grade, so the move to civics in that grade beginning this fall will be a significant one, said Gorman Lee, the social studies coordinator for the Braintree district and a past president of the Massachusetts Council for the Social Studies.

There’s some looming concern about a potential civics assessment in the 8th grade. History and social studies haven’t been assessed in the state for about a decade. So far, the state is in the early phases of convening panels of teachers to begin developing test items, including some performance-based tasks. Teachers are closely watching to see how that might end up shaping their teaching.

“What is the state exactly expecting students to do? What might that assessment look like?” said Lee. “I get concerned that assessment becomes a ‘Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?’ multiple-choice test and puts students in a passive-learning mode.”

Perhaps that’s why, he says, educators feel two ways about the changes. They’re excited about renewed attention to their neglected field and they hope it will translate into increased district resources for social studies professional development and materials.

“But at the same time, they’re very cautious,” he said.

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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