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Ed. Magazine

Civics Duty

As national history and civics scores drop, educators are finding new ways to make room in their classrooms for social studies
Illustration by Giulio Bonasera
Illustrations: Giulio Bonasera

There’s a sign in Rebecca Park’s classroom that reads, “History is part of you, and you are part of history.” 

For some teachers, that message might be nothing more than an inspirational quote for students, quickly read and just as quickly forgotten. But for Park, Ed.M.’17, a 12th-grade humanities teacher, it speaks to her deeper philosophy when it comes to teaching social studies, one that was instilled in her as a member of the founding cohort of the Harvard Teacher Fellows Program. 

“For me, my job is to prepare students to be civically engaged, to be motivated to be engaged with both community activism and more traditional things like voting,” Park says. “But also, to deeply believe we can’t move forward without understanding the past. You can’t understand yourself if you don’t understand the past.” 

Park is lucky. For the last six years she’s taught at Leaders, a small Outward Bound high school in Brooklyn, New York, that emphasizes community- based and project-based learning, and so she’s been able to bring history and civics to life for her students beyond just dates and facts in a textbook.

Students have interviewed political candidates. They’ve written policy papers on issues that directly impact them. They’ve read classic novels to learn about the past and make connections to current events. 

But what’s happening is Park’s classroom is far from the norm in most American schools, where time for social studies has steadily been shrinking for years, pushed aside to focus on math and English language arts. In some states, new laws are making it illegal to even teach certain subjects related to history and civics. 

Coupled with COVID-related learning loss, it’s no wonder that the latest report from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) had a bleak assessment: American students are failing in social studies. naep, often referred to as the Nation’s Report Card, saw eighth-grade civics and history scores sink to new lows, with just 13% of students demonstrating proficiency in history, and 22% in civics. 

“I think right now, many Americans rightly worry about the future of our democracy and our ability to work together as a nation to solve collective problems,” says Professor Martin West, who is also a member of the National Assessment Governing Board, which oversees the Nation’s Report Card. “Ensuring that students have a solid foundation in history and civics is not the only thing we need to address those concerns, but it strikes me as an essential prerequisite for strengthening American democracy.” 

In an opinion piece for the Boston Globe, West wrote that the “ongoing erosion of student’s history and civics knowledge should sound alarm bells across the country.” 

But at a time when civic engagement has become increasingly polarized and toxic, and many educators are faced with restrictions on what they can even teach, will schools be able to heed that warning? 

Not Just COVID’s Fault 

In 2022, the average NAEP eighth-grade U.S. history score decreased by five points compared to 2018 and by nine points compared to 2014. Average scores also dropped across racial and ethnic groups, compared to four years before. And while scores dropped, the percentage of students who fell below the naep’s “basic” achievement level increased, rising from 34% in 2018 to 40% in 2022. 

Even in high-performing districts, the gaps in student knowledge when it comes to history are shocking, educators say. Spike Sommers, Ed.M.’22, found that out firsthand this past year, his first teaching eighth-grade social studies in Brookline Public Schools, a high-achieving district less than four miles from Harvard. 

During a discussion about the Thirteenth Amendment, Sommers asked his students to imagine what life was like at the time for Black Americans in the 19th century. He quickly realized that was too advanced a question for many students, who he said, “had no idea what the Civil War was, or they conflated it with the American Revolution, or thought Martin Luther King Jr., was involved with it. I realized I couldn’t assume students had a historical basis for the things we were talking about.” 

It’s not just scores and knowledge that have slipped. Compared to 2018, this year also marked a decline in the percentage of eighth-grade students who reported taking a class mainly focused on U.S. history, while elementary teachers report they lack the support to teach social studies well. 

To understand how we got to this point, it helps to know the history of social studies education in this country. 

There’s no doubt that the pandemic had an adverse effect on student performance in history and civics scores in 2022, but, West says, “it would be a mistake to reduce the issue to the pandemic alone." While civic scores fell for the first time since the naep test began in 1998, history scores have been falling for nearly a decade and fell by a similar amount between 2014 and 2018. 

“Over a much longer period, we know that there have been pretty substantial declines in instructional time elementary school teachers report devoting to history, social studies, [and] civic content, and that’s a consequence in part to an accountability system that focuses almost entirely on students’ math and reading achievement,” West says. 

Researchers began to observe what they call the “social studies squeeze” in 2007, a result of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), which required, by law, that states test students in reading and math, but not in other content areas. Without the pressure of high-stakes testing, schools slowly began reducing their emphasis on instructional time for other subjects, including social studies. 

“I think right now, many Americans rightly worry about the future of our democracy and our ability to work together as a nation to solve collective problems. Ensuring that students have a solid foundation in history and civics … strikes me as an essential prerequisite for strengthening American democracy.”

Professor Martin West

“We know when you don’t test, the time investment shrinks,” says Professor Danielle Allen, director of the Democratic Knowledge Project (DKP), an initiative of Harvard’s Edmond & Lily Safra Center for Ethics. But, she adds, this de-emphasis goes back even further than NCLB. 

“We have a 70-year story of disinvestment” in civics and history, she says, a trend that began during World War II with an increased investment in stem research, and has continued to today, with the federal government spending a little more than $50 per student for stem versus five cents for civics, according to research from the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools. 

Those sidelining actions now echo across the latest naep scores, where students are unable to answer some of the most basic questions related to the foundations of the American political system or the historic events that have gotten us to where we are today. But, even if these low naep scores do serve as a wakeup call, that warning is coming at possibly the worst time. 

“When we need more robust civic education with young people to help foster the democratic attitudes to safeguard democracy is at the very time when teachers feel under threat if they attempt to do so,” says Professor Meira Levinson, whose forthcoming book, Civic Contestation in Global Education, will be out in 2024. 

Since 2021, 18 states have imposed bans on certain classroom discussion topics, including race and gender. Some have gone even farther. In 2021, Texas passed legislation to not only block teaching lessons about racism or sexism, but also included a provision that outlawed assignments involving communication between students and federal, state, or local officials. 

These limitations are restricting what teachers can teach, especially when it comes to social studies. A recent report by the rand Corporation, Walking on Eggshells, found that one in four teachers changed their curriculum or instruction because of state and district restrictions. In July of this year, the Florida State Board of Education approved new social studies standards that included language about how “slaves developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit.” Not only are students receiving a censored version of history, but they are also losing out on the chance to discuss controversial topics, a critical component in the development of their civic skills. 

“Whatever we are doing in our schools, it is insufficient to meet the very real and high stakes demands of the current moment where we need more informed, more engaged, more skillful citizens with the right kinds of dispositions, not toward violence but toward using non-violent tools, to try and collectively identify real problems together,” Levinson says. 

Experts have some solutions. End-of-year history and civics tests might improve results, as “research shows teachers spend more time on social studies in states that include the subject in their testing programs,” according to West. Infrastructure — meaning the policies that support teachers' instructional practices and student learning — for social studies is also severely lacking in most states and at the district level, according to another rand report. Creating more consistent frameworks and providing more support, including teacher evaluation and professional development, could go a long way in holding schools more accountable for student achievement in social studies. 

But in addition to these more traditional interventions, educators and experts are also beginning to rethink what civics and history education can look like in 21st-century classrooms, and some promising changes are taking place right here in Massachusetts. 

Leading the Change 

It’s fitting that the birthplace of the American Revolution might serve as a model for turning the tide of failing social studies instruction. 

In 2018, the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education revised its history and social science standards, placing a greater emphasis on civics and introducing a new yearlong eighth-grade civics course. The legislation also passed a law that requires all students in eighth grade and high school to lead a schoolbased civics project. 

West believes the state can be an example for the rest of the country in how to prepare students to better understand history and become active civic participants. It’s a good start to reversing decades of neglect when it comes to teaching history and civics, but, unfortunately, it’s targeted primarily at improving grades. There’s still a deep disillusionment amongst young people and how they feel about American democracy that extends beyond the classroom. 

According to the Democratic Knowledge Project, fewer than 30% of people under 40 believe it is essential to live in a democracy, while 1 in 4 young people believe choosing leaders through free elections is unimportant. 

But Allen and the project’s staff are trying to change that attitude. One of the group’s many initiatives includes an eighth-grade civics curriculum called “Civic Engagement in Our Democracy.” Co-created by the DKP along with eighth-grade educators in Cambridge Public Schools in 2019, the curriculum has since been piloted by dozens of educators around Massachusetts. In 2021, the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education recognized the curriculum as one of just four year-long civics curriculum that met state standards.

Hands raised illustration by Giulio Bonasera

“To have that civic identity is to figure out what you value, and connect that to the many roles in being part of a civic society, like voting, holding elected office, and working on local committees, and also with those outside civic institutions, like protests,” says Allen. “Our hope is to help young people reclaim one of those civic roles for themselves and reclaim an ownership stake in our democracy.” 

Through project-based activities and projects, students learn about history while also developing their civic identity by reflecting on their own personal values to better understand the potential civic roles available to them. 

Audrey Koble teaches eighth-grade English and civics at Brooke Roslindale Charter School in Boston. She piloted the DKP curriculum last year and says the work around student identity was powerful. 

“It made it clear that you have to understand yourself to understand how a government can work for you,” Koble says. 

That initial work laid the foundation for students to create impactful civic-minded projects at the end of the school year. Students attended local government board meetings and spoke with local political and business leaders, including Boston Mayor Michelle Wu and New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft. And their projects reflected ideas for real problems facing students, like one in which students proposed a new mbta subway route to address a lack of service between the Orange Line and the Green Line. 

Koble says thanks to the curriculum and their final projects, she feels confident her students are headed to high school with a stronger understanding of themselves and their place in their democracy. “They know some politicians are out there with their best interests in mind, and that they have the ability to reach out to them,” Koble says. “I didn’t understand that until well into my 20s, and for them to understand that at 13 and 14 years old is incredible.” 

Spike Sommers also piloted the  DKP curriculum at his school in Brookline, and despite needing to fill in some gaps for students, he found the curriculum very powerful, especially in the way that it “used the social studies to make the civics understandable and contextualized, while the social studies really came alive because you see how relevant it is today.” 

One unit, in particular, highlighted that relationship, where students learned about Prince Hall, a Black abolitionist leader in Boston who began a petition campaign to end slavery in 1773. Using his writings as primary sources, students went on to write their own petitions, from adding more gender-neutral bathrooms at their school to changing the school start time. 

That’s not to say the curriculum or the new framework are perfect. Sommers found the end-of-year civics project particularly challenging. Even with supports built into the DKP curriculum, Sommers says students often felt overwhelmed with leading a project on their own, and even he felt buried at times trying to keep track of more than 80 unique projects, the quality of which varied widely from student to student. 

Civics Education That Works 

Lecturer Eric Soto-Shed recognizes the challenges of bringing impactful civics learning into classrooms. Although he’s encouraged by the work at both the state level and by organizations like the DKP, he’s working to help make it easier for teachers to assess civics skills and competencies and make sure students across classrooms can have consistent, meaningful experiences. 

Along with Jack Schneider, an education professor at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, Soto-Shed is working on a research project to identify what exactly it looks like to be an engaged citizen and to codify those skills into resources to support students and teachers

“If we want to put curriculum into the classroom, we first need to identify the civic thinking actions we want students to do,” Soto-Shed says. “There’s a lot of good curriculum out there and research informed by philosophy and theory, but Jack and I were interested in the cognitive moves that engaged citizens do when they are participating in some kind of civic action.” 

“When we need more robust civic education with young people to help foster the democratic attitudes to safeguard democracy is at the very time when teachers feel under threat if they attempt to do so.”

Professor Meira Levinson

Taking inspiration from the Reading Like a Historian curriculum developed by the Stanford History Education Group, which taught students how to approach history through the same skills as professional historians, Soto-Shed is planning to do the same for civics. 

In a recent research paper called Teaching Students to be Skilled Citizens, Soto-Shed and his co-authors surveyed 100 experts, including professors, elected officials, and nonprofit civic leaders, along with 500 regular citizens to come up with some main areas of civic involvement, including politically engaged activities like voting and activism, and a broader category called neighborliness, which covers interpersonal tasks like volunteering, helping others, and communicating across differences. 

Soto-Shed says by identifying how people engage in these tasks, he hopes it will be easier for schools to integrate civics learning. “What we’re hoping to do with our research is help schools and states and districts be intentional about the civic skills we really need to care about, what the tasks are for students to demonstrate those skills, and how they can be taught,” he says. 

And by identifying the tasks, he also thinks it will allow districts to build those civic competencies into many different parts of the curriculum through interdisciplinary lessons and activities. 

“Look at volunteering, or neighborliness, those are things that can cut across curriculum,” Soto-Shed says. “I think part of the challenge is that civics is broadly defined and can live in many different parts of the curriculum, so having concrete tasks for where and how and when they are taught will help districts be more systematic about it.” 

West also believes that getting creative about how to fit in civics during the school day can be another solution to improving civics learning. 

“I think it’s a mistake to think about instructional time in schools as a zero-sum game where different subjects need to compete for time,” West says. One of the most obvious ways is by incorporating history and civics content into English language arts classes. 

Rebecca Park does that with her students in Brooklyn. During a unit on New York City, Park had her students read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. At the same time, they researched the historical setting of the novel to learn more about political corruption, poverty, and women’s rights, and how those issues impacted the literary characters. For another project, students read Arthur Miller’s The Crucible and connected past moral panics with today’s controversies over issues like critical race theory. 

Interdisciplinary projects like these don’t just benefit history learning, either. Studies, including one conducted recently by Professor James Kim called Models of Reading Engagement, show that increasing background knowledge in social studies and science also improves student reading comprehension. 

Another way teachers can make civics more exciting for students is by making it more accessible. While learning about the Constitution and the presidency are important, they can also feel very distant for students, especially eighth-graders. But learning about local government and the impact it has on their lives can feel much more relevant to students. Plus, it’s a lot easier to get a local politician to speak with students than say the president of the United States. 

During the 2021 New York City Council election, Park took advantage of online learning to virtually invite nearly a dozen candidates to speak with her class. In preparation, students created rubrics about the qualities that would make the best council member and used them to interview each candidate. 

“We have to balance the fundamentals they need to know with giving them an access point to make them curious to access more information rather than just starting with Article 1 of the Constitution,” says Park. “I think it’s important that civic curriculum starts with local government or local activism to give kids the motivations to get through the drier stuff.” 

But teaching for student engagement doesn’t mean sacrificing learning the fundamentals of history or civics. Soto-Shed says even when teachers give students the freedom to choose any action project they want, they can still learn about and show their understanding of policies and systems of democracy by justifying their project choices. 

“If a student wants to organize a protest, have them talk about why a referendum might not work, or if they want to do a social media campaign, who in the government do they think really needs to hear it,” Soto-Shed says. “Justify the action and really draw on the knowledge of the issue and of the system. That can be a powerful way to make sure students are learning the nuts and bolts while also being engaged in passionate work.”

Andrew Bauld, Ed.M.’16, is a writer based in New York City. His last piece for Ed. was on what’s lost when colleges compete.

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