Social Studies

New National Civics Guidelines Carve a Middle Path for Teachers in a Polarized Climate

By Stephen Sawchuk & Sarah Schwartz — March 01, 2021 8 min read
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Is America a land of freedom and opportunity, a shining civic example of government by and for the people? Or is it a system built on oppression and disenfranchisement that’s forced marginalized peoples to fight for full participation?

A set of K-12 history and civics guidelines partly funded by federal agencies tries to find a middle ground between the competing narratives by posing the question: What if it’s both?

Released today, the “Roadmap to Educating for American Democracy” guidelines are part of an ambitious project to reverse decades of neglect of the social studies. But they also come in perhaps the most difficult era the discipline has ever faced and will likely face intense scrutiny as a result.

Unprecedented levels of polarization and the seismic political and social events of 2020 have turned the social studies field into the most explosive curriculum area in K-12 education. Debates rage over provocative new retellings of the American story, like The New York Times’ 1619 Project, and more familiar, idealistic, even sanitized narratives like those favored by former President Trump’s now-disbanded 1776 Commission.

The new guidelines, developed by a national panel of dozens of academics, educators, and civic nonprofit leaders, center on the idea of “reflective patriotism”: that students should learn to feel committed to this country and the ideals it purports to represent, while also questioning, critiquing, and holding the powerful to account when it fails to live up to those ideals.

Students should learn about the importance of civic participation, the founding of American democracy, and the notion that civil disagreement is baked into the U.S. Constitution and is part of the American experiment, they state.

“We hope there’s a recognition that some constructive answer has come forward from a nationwide, cross-ideological, balanced view that lack of civics knowledge is a problem for our education system at all levels,” said Paul O. Carrese, a professor and the director of the school of civic and economic thought and leadership at Arizona State University, and one of the main contributors to the new guidelines. “We just don’t have to be stuck in warring factions and different views of civics and history, and how to teach it, and what it is.”

Failed efforts on history and civics standards go way back

Funded in part by a federal grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the U.S. Department of Education, the new guidelines are billed as a foundation on which to build a new model for civics and history that prioritizes inquiry into the nation’s complicated and contested founding and evolution. (Private foundations provided some additional funding.)

It is not the first time such an effort has been tried, and the track record of past initiatives isn’t encouraging.

A 1994 federal effort to set grade-by-grade history standards fell apart dramatically over debates about patriotism and political correctness. And an attempt during the Common Core State Standards era to create similar shared guidelines for social studies barely got off the ground.

The new effort involved a steering team of about 300 academics and educators from the political science, history, and civics fields. They crafted the guidelines in working groups beginning in late 2019. (The sessions weren’t open to journalists.)

In a sense, it’s easier to outline what the new road map is not, rather than to describe what it is.

It’s not a chronological list of history content touchpoints, the way most K-12 social studies standards tend to be. It’s not specific enough to be a curriculum. It’s not content-neutral, like previous attempts to articulate civic learning skills. It’s not even a grade-by-grade guide; instead, it’s organized by four different grade bands: K-2, 3-5, 6-8, and 9-12.

The 40-page draft outlines key concepts, thematic “driving questions” for student inquiry, and more-specific sample guiding questions.

While the draft does reference some contentious issues, including the forced removal of Indigenous people and the institution of enslavement, many of the driving questions are conceptual.

Throughout students’ K-12 education, the guidelines say, they should be using critical inquiry skills to engage with all the rich conceptual questions kicked up by the founding of America. For example, how does the idea of “We the People” change over time? Which moments of change have most defined the country’s evolution and that of its political institutions? What kinds of stories tell us who we are and where we’re from?

Can the new guidelines overcome the history wars?

Still, the document’s authors do stake out some definitive positions on big questions. For one, they refer to the United States as a “constitutional democracy,” a choice that wasn’t made without controversy.

The debate over what to call our government is a proxy for two different perspectives on what’s most important about our system: Those who choose the term “republic” are trying to emphasize order and institutions, while those calling the United States a “democracy” want to put in the forefront popular participation, said Danielle Allen, a professor at Harvard University and the director of the school’s Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics, and another lead author on the project.

But both terms were used by the framers, Allen said, and the roadmap writers’ choice coveys that both formal structure and participation are key to American civic life.

We just don’t have to be stuck in warring factions and different views of civics and history.

As for who is part of that civic life, the roadmap uses two definitions of the word citizen. The guidelines discuss the rights granted to those considered legal citizens of the United States, but also engage with the idea of a citizen as someone who contributes to a community, whatever their age or legal status.

All of these choices make room to teach both traditional civics topics like voting and government structure, while also engaging with “action civics,” an approach that explores how people can identify issues that are important to them and make change, said Peter Levine, a professor of citizenship and public affairs at Tufts University, and one of the lead collaborators on the document.

“It integrates both, and I would say fully, not as a compromise,” Levine said.

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This line—between a conservative and an activist approach, between pride and critique—is one that the document also tries to walk in defining its guiding principles.

One of those principles is “civic friendship,” the idea that the American form of government can not only accommodate but is sustained by disagreements, and that students should learn to argue well and in good faith. “Reflective patriotism,” a concept that originally comes from French philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville, is another.

And finally, in the spirit of e pluribus unum, it attempts to balance a national story with the insights of recent scholarly work prioritizing working-class voices, women, and Black and Indigenous experiences.

“Our effort in this project is to find those themes that hold the incredible diversity of American experience, without losing the potential to illuminate the very different histories of particular groups that may be important to different states,” said Jane Kamensky, a professor of American history at Harvard University, another key participant in the project. “We need to see the relationships of our different histories to each other in a kind of braided fashion. Our diversity is perhaps our most exceptional feature; it is what makes us one, and the fight to inhabit that paradox has been there from the very beginning of the United States as a nation.”

That does not mean, though, that teachers will find the new guidelines easy to teach. As recent legislative efforts to ban discussion of racism and sexism in schools demonstrate, there’s strong pushback from some quarters to even engaging in these conversations.

When that pushback comes from teachers, “you have to balance having empathy for and accommodating that discomfort, and also standing up for things that we know to be best practice,” said Shannon Salter, a high school social studies teacher and curriculum and instructional designer in Allentown, Pa., who worked on the project.

Putting a new history and civics framework into action

The new framework also asks teachers to think about social studies pedagogy in new ways.

“The biggest challenges are to convince people to go away from the lists of content to looking in depth at what needs to be taught and this idea of focusing on inquiry,” said Louise Dubé, the executive director of curriculum and advocacy group iCivics and another major contributor to the project. “I think it’s quite an accepted notion that [inquiry] should happen, but we do have to build capacity in the classroom around that.”

In practice, that means teachers may have to forgo covering all the dates and names and places that they have in the past, said Salter. The trade-offs are worth it, she said, as students ideally leave high school with the tools they need to think critically about history and current events, and to seek out information on their own.

Our diversity is perhaps our most exceptional feature; it is what makes us one.

Still, Salter acknowledges the discomfort involved in making the shift. She felt it when she started at her current school, about six years ago: “You’ll wake up in the middle of the night one day in the summer and say, ‘Oh! We never read George Washington’s Farewell Address.’”

The initiative’s leaders say they’ve already shared drafts with state social studies directors, and they have also begun a handful of pilots with individual teachers and schools.

A new website will contain additional guidance for teachers and will curate curriculum resources. They include some from providers like the Bill of Rights Institute that focus on primary documents and the origins of the Constitution, as well as others that prioritize the stories of how marginalized communities have experienced and transformed America, like those from Facing History and Ourselves.

Salter said she hopes that the guidelines can send a message to bigger publishers whose resources often stick to the voices of white, male founders: “When you’re building something to compare and contrast perspectives, we mean all of them.”

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A version of this article appeared in the March 10, 2021 edition of Education Week as New National Civics Guidelines Carve A Middle Path for Teachers in a Polarized Climate


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