Social Studies

Ways to Improve Civic Engagement and Student Voice: An EdWeek Chat

By Stephen Sawchuk — May 15, 2019 6 min read
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As part of our ongoing coverage of civics education, Education Week recently held a chat on what schools could do to improve their teaching on this subject, respect students’ rights, and give them a say in what happens at school.

It was a really rich discussion with a lot of engagement, so in the interest of getting some of the insights out to a wider audience, I’ve decided to summarize some of the most interesting points of discussion here. (You can go back to follow the chat using the hashtag #StudentVoiceChat, or by starting with the tweet thread begun in this post below.)

I led with the question of how to involve students in decisionmaking, because it seems to me that given that compulsory public school itself is an intensive interaction with a civic institution, good civics education should start there: Students should have a voice shaping what happens in their schools.

Over the last year of reporting on civics, I’ve learned almost every school district purports to value student voice in theory, but administrators are not always so sanguine when students push back on some of their ways of doing things.

As Rick points out, this doesn’t mean schools should necessarily be run as direct democracies, but it does mean that students should have a say in how schools’ norms and policies work. In fact, two student journalists who wrote a recent op-ed for Education Week after being turned away from a press conference with U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos gave a good example of what happens when there’s a rift between word and deed on student voice:

Here’s another great example:

We also looked at how civics is taught. Typically, this occurs through a historical lens rather than one that emphasizes the changing, dynamic nature of civic institutions and interactions. (Picture a teacher droning in a monotone voice: “The Bill of Rights was ratified in 1791 ... .”)

Historical civics is really important, but it’s easy to portray it as distant and remote—even though the civic roots of our nation are more relevant than ever, with conversations like policing and presidential impeachment procedures in the news. (The Constitutional Sources Project is a wonderful resource for primary sources on the evolution of the Constitution and amendments.)

Chat participants had lots of ideas on this topic, with several pointing towards action civics as a potential strategy and others noting that local politics are often more immediately relevant than larger national debates.

Citizen Z, An Education Week Project: Teaching Civics in a Divided America

Our third question dealt with the issue of students’ rights.

Here, commentators offered perspectives on students’ constitutional rights—which, as I reported for a recent story and video explainer, look markedly different for students in school, as well as other sources that shape what students are and aren’t permitted to do.

Here’s a discussion of student codes of conduct, which can be an opportunity to engage students—or, as Frank LoMonte points out, impermissibly restrict students’ rights:

One commentator pointed out something I’ve thought a lot about: Efforts to “harden” schools or make them safer can sometimes work at cross purposes to the expression and emphasis of students’ rights. (Surprisingly, this has not been a focus of much media coverage or even much discussion among the school safety and social-emotional learning experts.)

Our journalism students noted that their school has their backs on their First Amendment right to freedom of the press.

Finally, Tinisha Shaw noted the racial dynamic that often plays out for schools serving black and brown students.

Last, for our fourth question, we spoke a bit about what schools could do better to model good civics practice, not just teach civics. (In a recent story, I wrote about a charter school in Colorado that has arguably not done a good job on this front; it allegedly punished students who held a respectful protest.)

Here were a few of the chat participants’ ideas:

These themes run through all of Education Week‘s civics coverage. If you haven’t already, this is a great time to read those stories.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.