Opinion Blog


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

Civics Ed. Is on the Precipice of Becoming Common Core 2.0

By Rick Hess — May 03, 2021 3 min read
Image shows a multi-tailed arrow hitting the bullseye of a target.
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

A decade ago, a push to change the nation’s reading and math standards blew up into a ferocious, multiyear clash. Obama administration efforts to promote the Common Core State Standards via its Race to the Top program and concerns about the impact on math and reading instruction combined to fuel a fight which ultimately turned a vaguely popular notion into a poisoned brand. The dispute wound up swallowing much of what the Obama administration sought to do in K-12 schooling.

You’d think the lesson would’ve stuck. President Joe Biden, after all, saw all of this up close as Obama’s VP. But recent efforts to promote civics education suggest that little was learned.

Over the last couple years, there’s been a growing effort to promote civics education, featuring a lot of time and energy devoted to making the case that it’s a nonpartisan, bottom-up effort. There’s already been a lot of headwind, given the enthusiasm in some circles for “action civics” and “anti-racist” resources that strike many of us as overtly ideological and frequently partisan.

Now, in late April, the U.S. Department of Education announced its new “priorities” for civics ed. In accord with Biden’s executive order on racial equity, the department proposed having federal civics programs “support the development of culturally responsive teaching and learning.” In response, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and 37 GOP senators called on the Department of Education to stop the rule, saying, “If your administration had proposed actual legislation instead of trying to do this quietly through the Federal Register, that legislation would not pass Congress.”

Stanley Kurtz, senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, slammed the proposal in National Review, writing, “In an early but revelatory move, President Biden’s Department of Education has signaled its intent to impose the most radical forms of Critical Race Theory on America’s schools, very much including the 1619 Project and the so-called anti-racism of Ibram X. Kendi. (Kendi’s “anti-racism”—which advocates a massive and indefinite expansion of reverse discrimination—is more like neo-racism.)”

Peter Kirsanow of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights argued at a virtual conference last fall sponsored by the National Association of Scholars that the “1619 Project” is “one of the most significant attempts to propagandize history” in his lifetime—well before Biden held it up as a model of civics instruction.

And there was already grave concern on the right about the proposed Civics Secures Democracy Act, which would appropriate $1 billion for curriculum development and teacher training in civics education. Critics suggest that the bill’s wording all but ensures that the funds would be earmarked to promote and support critical race theory and discriminatory practices, such as the race-based grouping of students and staff, that many conservatives view as flatly at odds with the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause and the plain meaning of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

Erika Sanzi, the director of outreach at Parents Defending Education, recently wrote in Newsweek that the new organization is hearing daily “from concerned parents and teachers about what they describe as a ‘racially divisive curriculum,’ ‘blatant activism in the classroom,’ ‘infantilization of students and staff of color,’ ‘sanctioned discrimination,’ ‘radical gender ideology’ and ‘racist poison.’” One father told her, “We did not immigrate to this country for our children to be taught in taxpayer-funded schools that punctuality and hard work are white values.”

If you thought the fight about the wording of state reading and math standards got ugly, just watch what happens when the issue is whether public schools should be teaching students to label themselves based on race and ethnicity. If Obama incentivizing states to adopt the Common Core proved incendiary when the issue was how much fiction kids should read, wait until the issue is whether Uncle Sam should encourage schools to adopt materials that teach the U.S. is a “slavocracy.”

It’s a lost opportunity, on two counts. We sorely need to step up the quality of civics education. That includes teaching a richer, more complex historical tapestry than has been the norm. And, as Pedro Noguera and I have said ad nauseum, we must do much better in hashing out these fraught questions. But federal directives which push states and schools to embrace problematic historiography and unapologetic defenses of discrimination are not the way to go about that.

We’re on the precipice of Common Core 2.0. Here’s hoping those serious about civics education can still avert the plunge.

Related Tags:

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.

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Student Well-Being Webinar
A Whole Child Approach to Supporting Positive Student Behavior 
To improve student behavior, it’s important to look at the root causes. Social-emotional learning may play a preventative role.

A whole child approach can proactively support positive student behaviors.

Join this webinar to learn how.
Content provided by Panorama
Recruitment & Retention Live Online Discussion A Seat at the Table: Why Retaining Education Leaders of Color Is Key for Student Success
Today, in the United States roughly 53 percent of our public school students are young people of color, while approximately 80 percent of the educators who lead their classrooms, schools, and districts are white. Racial
Jobs January 2022 Virtual Career Fair for Teachers and K-12 Staff
Find teaching jobs and other jobs in K-12 education at the EdWeek Top School Jobs virtual career fair.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Social Studies What's the History of Reconstruction? In Many States, Students Don't Get the Whole Picture
A new report finds that state standards muddy the significance of the era, omit key understandings, or promote false narratives.
8 min read
Conceptual image of woman with lantern searching and walking through a fog between pages and books.
iStock/Getty Images Plus
Social Studies Opinion The U.S. Capitol Insurrection Was a Case Study in White Privilege. Teach It That Way
Last year, I watched the Jan. 6 riots wondering what would have happened if the rioters had been Black. It's time to talk to students about it.
Shaun R. Harper
4 min read
U.S. Capitol Police try to hold back protesters outside the east doors of the U.S. Capitol on Jan 6, 2021.
U.S. Capitol Police try to hold back rioters outside the east doors of the U.S. Capitol on Jan 6, 2021.
Andrew Harnik/AP
Social Studies Opinion My Students Still Have Questions About the Capitol Riot. They Deserve Honest Answers
Jan. 6, 2021, is a lesson plan for the difficult but critical U.S. history that often gets left out of textbooks, writes a history teacher.
Chris Dier
4 min read
Supporters of President Donald Trump gather outside the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.
Supporters of President Donald Trump gather outside the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.
Shafkat Anowar/AP
Social Studies Teaching Jan. 6: How the Insurrection Is Being Addressed in Class
What students are learning about the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 may depend on where they live.
5 min read
Waukee School District teacher Liz Wagner in her home, Thursday, Dec. 23, 2021, in Urbandale, Iowa. Teachers have already landed on the front lines of the culture war. Now the Jan. 6 anniversary is prompting some to decide how -- or whether -- to teach their students about the events that sit at the heart of the country’s division.
Waukee School District teacher Liz Wagner in her home in Urbandale, Iowa. Teachers have already landed on the front lines of the culture war. Now the Jan. 6 anniversary is prompting some to decide how—or whether—to teach their students about the events that sit at the heart of the country’s division.
Charlie Neibergall/AP