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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

Civics Roadmap’s Designers Would Do Well to Heed Their Critics

By Rick Hess — April 12, 2021 4 min read
Image shows a multi-tailed arrow hitting the bullseye of a target.

The “Roadmap” issued by Educating for American Democracy (EAD) is barely a month old, but EAD is already experiencing the good times that await anyone audacious enough (or foolhardy enough) to pursue national initiatives regarding the stuff of history, civics, and standards. The Roadmap has been hammered as a politicized, ideological exercise.

My friend Mark Bauerlein, English professor at Emory and senior editor at First Things, has written, “Organizers present the Roadmap as bipartisan and balanced, but if you scan the details, you’ll find it relentlessly focuses on group identity, access and exclusion, agency and dissent, and diversity.” Joy Pullman, a devastatingly effective critic of the Common Core State Standards, penned a scathing piece charging that the Roadmap treats “public schools as leftist indoctrination factories” and that it is “just like Common Core.” And National Review’s Stanley Kurtz has slammed the Roadmap as an effort “to provide a sheen of legitimacy to ‘action civics,’ an adaptation of Alinsky-style community organizing to education.”

Those in the (largely left-leaning) civics community that worked on the Roadmap have responded to such concerns by arguing that they’re inaccurate or unfair. Even though I tend to hold the Roadmap itself in high regard, I think that’s a huge mistake.

First off, regarding my sympathy for the Roadmap: As I’ve noted before, I agreed to co-chair the Roadmap’s implementation task force because I think the exercise has much promise. I think the enterprise is intellectually serious, tackles a crucial challenge in a responsible manner, and reflects a meaningful (if not wholly adequate) effort to include conservatives. We need a vision of civics instruction that helps teachers address charged questions in an expansive, rigorous, knowledge-based manner, and I think the Roadmap offers this. And I think the Roadmap gets big value-laden things right—from its comfort with patriotism to its unabashed attention to the importance of the constitutional order. I don’t see evidence that the Roadmap endorses action civics or promotes woke ideology.

But. But. But. None of this is really the issue. I understand why those at EAD might get frustrated when critics suggest the document endorses action civics when that may not be the literal truth. But, as I wrote when the Roadmap was unveiled, “What ultimately matters is not its appealing aims but how they’re actually implemented.”

That’s where the proponents of the Roadmap would do well to listen closely to even their more vociferous critics. After all, when detractors assert that the Roadmap “provides a sheen of legitimacy” to action civics or is a Trojan Horse for ideological agendas, I’m not so sure that they’re “wrong.” Indeed, I fear that there are plenty in the world of civics, advocacy, and philanthropy who are only too eager to treat the Roadmap as such. And while the Roadmap’s champions should certainly challenge factually inaccurate claims, they’d also do well to regard these complaints as an opportunity to demonstrate their commitment to ensuring that the Roadmap doesn’t ultimately become a convenient vehicle for those with particular agendas.

On this point, I think—as Pullman argues—that elements of the Common Core experience can be powerfully instructive. Indeed, an observation I made about the Common Core back in 2014 in my long-winded National Affairs essay, “How the Common Core Went Wrong,” can be applied with only modest substitutions to the Roadmap: “The Common Core is very much a blank canvas, and given the faddish pedagogies endemic to American education, critics are hardly being unreasonable when they worry” about what it would mean in practice. The fear here is remarkably similar—that the Roadmap will be hijacked in the service of bad ideas. Especially when one looks at the ideological, deeply political nature of agendas being promoted by many in the field of civics education, it’s hard to dismiss the concerns as unwarranted.

Yet, it seems that the Roadmap’s champions may be tempted to mount the same sort of defense that (justifiably) failed to assuage critics of the Common Core. Back then, I noted that “advocates say it’s misguided to blame Common Core for dumb math lessons or worksheets because the Common Core is simply a set of standards and not a curriculum.” The problem with that defense in 2014 applies equally to those who’d use that line of argument to defend the Roadmap today: “Reports of ridiculous worksheets or infuriating homework assignments may well be unfortunate instances of teachers getting it wrong, but if an organization adopts an otherwise wonderful mission statement that lots of employees proceed to interpret ‘incorrectly,’ it is not unreasonable to raise questions about the whole exercise.” That’s what the critics are doing here with the Roadmap. At the end of the day, just as with the Common Core, whether bad ideas are found in the pages of the Roadmap or not will matter greatly to its architects, but not at all to its critics—or to parents and policymakers watching all this unfold.

So, sure, the Roadmap’s supporters should speak their piece when they think factually suspect claims are being made. But they should spend less time debating than listening, learning, and addressing legitimate concerns. Ultimately, the Roadmap’s future will turn, I suspect, on their ability to answer the concerns in word and deed.

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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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