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Rick Hess Straight Up

Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Social Studies Opinion

Approaching EAD’s New Civics Roadmap With Eyes Wide Open

By Rick Hess — March 03, 2021 3 min read
Image shows a multi-tailed arrow hitting the bullseye of a target.

Earlier this week, Educating for American Democracy (EAD) launched its “Roadmap to Educating for American Democracy.” Funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities and led by staff at iCivics, Harvard University, Tufts University, CIRCLE, and Arizona State University, the venture’s stated aim is to improve civics and history instruction. As regular readers know, these are tasks that I regard as terribly timely and sorely needed. (Full disclosure: I had no role in creating or crafting the Roadmap, but I did agree to help chair the implementation task force.)

It’s clear that what we’re doing when it comes to teaching civics and history isn’t working. NAEP civics scores are a mess. Surveys reveal shocking ignorance. Social studies teachers are dubious about the import of foundational knowledge. We need an approach that’s more rigorous, engaging, and comfortable with America’s failings and accomplishments. Now, I’m a firm believer that things can always get worse. So, the mere fact that change is needed doesn’t mean that EAD’s Roadmap points in the right direction. But it deserves a serious look.

The architects of the Roadmap explain that it is “neither a set of standards nor a curriculum.” Rather, they suggest, it’s a framework designed to help students “become involved in their constitutional democracy and help to sustain our republic,” tell the whole “of America’s plural yet shared story,” “celebrate the compromises” democracy requires, and nurture a “civic honesty and patriotism” that teaches students “to both love and critique this country.”

Seems to me that celebrating compromise, telling the whole of America’s messy story, and cultivating a patriotism that is both appreciative and critical should have wide appeal. And, while I’m always leery that something like this will morph into an exercise in progressive advocacy, I see reasons for cautious optimism. The framework itself strikes me as generally thoughtful; one of the effort’s three leads was Paul Carrese, an unapologetically classical thinker; and the design team included leaders of organizations, like the Bill of Rights Institute, that are unswerving defenders of the constitutional tradition.

Indeed, as I mentioned above, I agreed to help with the Roadmap’s implementation task force because what ultimately matters is not its appealing aims but how they’re actually implemented. In a field that leans very much to the left, I tend to respond with an open palm when someone reaches out to me in good faith. But I’m also inclined to keep a wary eye on things. There are at least three big things I’ll be watching.

First, these kinds of efforts almost always look better on paper than they do in practice. But it’s the practice that actually matters for students and schools. So, I’m going to keep a close eye on what’s actually happening as this effort is implemented within schools. Do the resources, system changes, and instruction reflect the pretty rhetoric, or does the exercise become a convenient way to disguise ideological agendas or dubious policies?

Second, an effort like this relies heavily on partnerships. Since its creators note that the Roadmap isn’t a set of standards or a curriculum, it will fall to others to craft the relevant standards, curricula, assessments, and instructional materials. Generally speaking, the bulk of educational nonprofits, teacher-training programs, advocacy groups, and funders come at civics and democratic education with pretty strong ideological priors. As these partners create the requisite resources, will they tilt the enterprise in troubling ways?

Third, what the Roadmap means in practice will inevitably be shaped by those who are deputized to promote it and how they explain it to parents, public officials, and educators. This public presentation will shape the effort, both substantively and symbolically. My take on the Roadmap will be heavily influenced by who is ultimately out front making the case for it and how they go about making that case.

In the end, with an effort like this, the proof is very much in the pudding. While the Roadmap could have much to offer, experience teaches me to approach this path with eyes wide open.

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The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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