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Rebuilding Civic Education

An eighth-grade curriculum, exploring political institutions and hidden histories, goes open-source
teens holding an American flag

When it comes to the state of civic education in America, Danielle Allen doesn’t mince her words: “I think we've hit bottom on a 70-year period of disinvestment,” she says.

The Harvard professor was disappointed but not surprised by the recently released eighth-grade national test scores in U.S. history and civics that reached new lows. Only 13 percent of students showed proficiency in history and just 22 percent in civics, which saw its first decline on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Although the COVID-19 pandemic likely contributed to the poor results, Allen points to chronic under-investment in social studies, including reduced instruction time. Until the end of last year, the federal government spent about 5 cents per student on K–12 civic education per year versus around $54 per student on STEM teaching. (Congress increased funding for civic education to 15 cents per student, per year, in December.) She also highlights the role of political polarization in holding back development of strong social studies standards, not to mention restrictions on content.

What Allen finds particularly worrisome is how the test scores line up with data that show how disengaged and alienated many young people feel from political institutions and the political system. For example, fewer than 30 percent of Americans under 40 believe it essential to live in a democracy, she explains, compared with around 70 percent of those born before the Second World War. “It really underscores the urgency of finding solutions,” Allen says.

Although there are no easy answers, Allen and her colleagues at the Democratic Knowledge Project (DKP) believe that rebuilding resources that support civic education in K–12 schools is a crucial place to start. “That means state governments doing more to fold requirements into state standards and doing more to provide resources for teachers, including professional development,” she says.
This summer the DKP will make Civic Engagement in our Democracy, its yearlong eighth-grade curriculum, open-source to anyone interested in using it. (The curriculum will be released in two parts in July and August, via the DKP’s website.) It has been piloted in 35 Massachusetts schools since 2019 and includes:

  • Opportunities for students to build civic knowledge and to develop and practice civic skills. Through seven content and skills-rich units, complete with instructional materials for teachers, students have the opportunity to gain civic knowledge and understanding, such as the philosophical foundations of democracy, and to integrate that knowledge with emerging civic skills, such as respectful agreement and disagreement, and accessing and analyzing primary foundational documents. The curriculum is aligned with the Massachusetts History and Social Science Framework and the Educating for American Democracy Roadmap.
  • Help with developing civic identity. “A student’s civic identity is developing when they can identify and integrate what they personally value, what they understand (civic knowledge), and what they can do (civic skills), while committing to shared civic values, or dispositions, of civic self-care, civic reciprocity, and civic self-confidence,” explains Adrianne Billingham Bock, DKP director of curriculum.
  • The use of “hidden histories” that have been previously untold and can include both contemporary and historical civic stories such as Prince Hall, an 18th century abolitionist and free Black man who used philosophical arguments and ideas to petition the Massachusetts legislature to end enslavement in the state and for the education of Black children in Boston.
  • A student-led civics project in which students get to select an issue that matters to them, where they believe change is needed, and take civic action on that issue.
  • Media literacy and elections modules, along with activities that teachers can use to support learning of the topics.

The role of parents and caregivers:

Caregivers can also help encourage civic mindedness explains David Kidd, the DKP’s chief assessment scientist. “When parents are civically engaged, when they talk about political issues at home, even if young people see their parents just going to vote, but certainly getting more involved, those things tend to have really positive effects on young people's development into civic agents.”

Other resources for educators and school and district leaders:

Educating for American Democracy, a national cross-partisan effort to guide K–12 content and pedagogical methods which includes instructional strategies, resources, and an inquiry-based roadmap.

CivXNow Coalition, an organization that helps citizens advocate at the state level for more resources for civic education.

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