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4 Tensions in Civics Education

Wrapping up this round of guest bloggers is Brendan Bell, my uber-talented research assistant. Before coming to AEI, Brendan served in the Alliance for Catholic Education and taught US history and government at Cristo Rey High School. He'll be writing about some of the debates surrounding social studies curriculum and teaching methods, drawing on his experiences working in Catholic education.

As someone who spent time teaching 12th-grade US government, it's easy for me to get wrapped up in the seeming consensus that civics education deserves more attention in policy and classrooms alike. It only takes a quick Google search and scan of articles to read headlines saying that civics education is "more important than ever before," and asking questions like, "Can teaching civics save democracy?" To my count, three national newspapers (The New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal) alone ran 30-plus editorials and op-eds in the past two years about civics education. This appetite exists in schools, too; in a recent Education Week survey, more than half of principals said their schools devote too little time to civics education.

Meanwhile, legislators, advocates, and lawyers are trying to offer solutions to what's been deemed a civics education crisis. In their last legislative sessions, 27 states considered bills or other proposals to expand civics instruction. And now, a federal lawsuit is being filed to challenge, on 14th Amendment grounds, that the provision of civics education is inequitable.

I'm strongly in favor of channeling this energy for increased civics into meaningful change in classrooms. But, just like during my days teaching government, I have to ask what exactly this should look like in practice.

After all, just beneath the surface of what seems to be consensus, there are still a handful of conversations that states, schools, and practitioners will need to have about how to effectively implement civics instruction. Here are four key tensions that school leaders and practitioners will have to weigh when considering how to expand civics education:

  1. Revamping existing courses versus introducing new ones: A 2018 Brookings report has tracked that, currently, 35 states plus DC require two or more civics courses as a high school graduation requirement, seven states require only one civics course for graduation, and eight states still have no such requirement. An obvious option is to simply expand course requirements and class time for civics. But another choice is to change how extant social studies classes are taught. For instance, states could follow the lead of Idaho, which has focused on introducing civics education at an early age, and has integrated a civics component into social studies classes from kindergarten through 12th grade. These state level policy decisions are important, but still don't entirely address questions of practice and instruction.
  2. Balancing civic reasoning skills and civic content: Most teachers will recognize that there is always at least some tension between delivering skills and introducing content knowledge. One can easily point to lacking student performance along both dimensions. As one example of the failures to develop civic reasoning skills, a 2016 study from Stanford History Education Group found that a full 80 percent of middle school students surveyed could not distinguish between a paid advertisement and a legitimate online news source. But perhaps even more shocking is that, consistently over the last two decades, less than 25 percent of eighth-grade students demonstrate proficiency on the NAEP civics exam. When taught well, skills and content are intertwined and interdependent, but there are still obvious tradeoffs between prioritizing either objective.
  3. Defining "success": Relatedly, what will define success or help us determine whether new civics education initiatives or laws have "worked"? Is increased activism, through an outcome like higher voter participation rates, the primary objective, or would we be more satisfied with greater knowledge about the functions of the branches of government? Of course, the answer to this question will determine which outcomes we attempt to measure, and what initiatives we push. For instance, the Massachusetts legislature passed a bill this July that would require schools to coordinate "student-led" civics projects, and will join Maryland and DC in requiring a service requirement prior to graduation. Pennsylvania, on the other hand, will now administer a statewide test for grades 7-12, focusing on content knowledge, and incorporating information from the naturalization test. Gauging "success" can be more subjective than in many content areas, as notions of citizenship are framed by personal priors and values.
  4. Incorporating current events: Current events can be great teaching tools—they engage students and help them see connections between content and the "real world." In many cases, they also provide outlets for discussion on difficult topics like immigration or poverty. Of course, there are many challenges to such an approach. For one, current events are constantly evolving, so creating relevant assessments can be especially challenging. Two, some issues are less salient than initially anticipated—I learned this the hard way by having my students analyze far too many 2016 Republican presidential candidate platforms. And three, when not done well, such methods also risk introducing more of teachers' opinions and biases into the classroom than one would hope.

I won't offer here any definitive answers for where states, schools, and teachers should put their thumbs down on these scales. (I will sketch out a few suggestions in my next post.) I'll just note that, as a teacher, I certainly found myself struggling with these decisions at times. Fortunately, none of these tensions involve choices that are necessarily mutually exclusive.

The good news is that great teachers do their best—and already often succeed—at threading these needles. Social studies classes can provide teachers a fair amount of discretion and room for creative lesson planning and instruction—which can offer fantastic opportunities for learning. But it's also the case that more and more gets bundled into what "civics education" entails, meaning that teachers have more dumped on their plates, stretching their ability to do any of it well.

I'm thrilled that we're recognizing that problems around civics education exist, but we'd do well to spend more time articulating the precise remedies before moving forward.

Brendan Bell

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