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Rebuilding Democracy

Recommendations from a sweeping civic learning initiative reinvigorate civics education on a national scale
Map of U.S. made up of people

When educators think about preparing students for the 21st century, they may think about teaching a generation of entrepreneurs or computer scientists. But before students can learn to build companies or code, they must first learn how to be citizens and participate in democracy.

To build a new foundation of excellence in civics and history, Education for American Democracy (EAD), a coalition of more than 300 academics, historians, political scientists, K-12 and community-based educators, state and district administrators, parents, and students from different backgrounds, recently unveiled an ambitious plan to equip 1 million teachers at 100,000 schools with the resources to teach an estimated 60 million students civics. The EAD report and accompanying instructional road map offer new insights and frameworks for educators and school, district, and state leadership to support the reinvigoration of civics education for this new, diverse generation of American learners.

Here, Usable Knowledge identifies two ways the report is shifting civics instruction and two actionable steps for education leaders at the state and national level.

Shifting Practice and Pedagogy

An interdisciplinary and inquiry-based approach that prioritizes depth over breadth.

Many state constitutions include a right to education and base that right on the need for educated citizens in a democracy. According to Danielle Allen, an EAD principal investigator and director of the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics, that basic purpose continues today. “The job of supporting developing the knowledge, skills, and dispositions that flow into effective and rewarding participation includes,” says Allen, “approaches to the study of history that integrate multiple perspectives, media literacy and competency, and the development of participatory skills like collaboration and bridging.” Instead of focusing on covering dates or specific historical events, the EAD report presents a series of themes, design challenges, and questions for learners and educators to explore that develop those skills and incorporates different perspectives.

Reinvigorate instruction by empowering teachers to develop best practices around long-standing complexities in civics.

The roadmap identifies areas of practice and content that meet the needs of educators teaching in today’s polarized society. “We had to deal with the reality of teaching today,” says Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg, an EAD principal investigator and director of the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) at Tufts University and. “There are things we were sensing were happening in classrooms and we tried to name them, so teachers feel like there’s concrete actions they can take.”

There are several design challenges that have long stymied innovation in civics and history instruction, according to the report, including Integrating perspectives of Americans from many different backgrounds consistently while also telling a common story and offering an account of democracy that is honest but not cynical, appreciative but not blind, to its faults.

Leaders Looking Ahead Should...

Prepare the teacher workforce.

To enable teaching that can respond to these design challenges and can also offer students deep, rigorous content knowledge, pre-service teacher education needs to take the needs of civics instruction into account. For one, teachers need to be prepared with the necessary content knowledge. They also need to have the pedagogy to implement that knowledge in a way that’s developmentally appropriate and accessible. “The research team worked intentionally to combine best practices in teaching with expertise in content,” says Kawashima-Ginsberg. “There is actually a need to step back a little bit before we go right into techniques and strategies to think about the mindset of the teacher.”

Teachers, as part of their training, must also think about their own identity in relationship to that content and in relationship to the identities of their students. This means that leaders need to consider the diversity and inclusivity of the teaching force itself. “We worked hard from day one to make sure that we were building inclusive teams along many dimensions — demographic diversity, geographic diversity, viewpoint diversity, professional diversity, disciplinary diversity,” says Allen, noting that the report is also advocating for state and federal investment in fellowship programs that would diversify the pipeline of educators coming into the civic education field.

Cultivate widescale investment.

To support implementation, the roadmap requires buy-in and support from stakeholders ranging from the federal government, parents, textbook companies, and local nonprofits. Educators working in schools, tutoring spaces, and museums will also need preparation and professional development to support the initiative. Of course, the struggle is that funding and support of civics education at this level has largely been neglected over the last few years. But recommitment is needed across the board — by everyone. “The idea,” says Peter Levine, an EAD principal investigator and professor at Tufts, “is that if you’re involved with civic life in your community, working at a library or struggling against the police, you should care about civic education in schools because it’s preparing kids to be a part of what you care about.”

Key Takeaways

  • Think about how to develop a teacher workforce that is prepared to deliver civics instruction through recruitment efforts, pre-service learning, and professional development opportunities.
  • Teachers need space to innovate around effective instruction, including solving design challenges around effective instruction include taking an honest look at American democracy from multiple perspectives.
  • Emphasize building a nuanced, deep understanding of American history and government rather than covering specific dates and events.
  • Forge partnerships across sectors and levels of government to support implementation.

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