These days, it appears that every other day presents a lesson in civics – an opportunity to understand and practice the rights and duties of citizenship anew. More palpably, the state of our civic education is in flux. What civic participation looks and acts like is being updated for a new generation – with numerous examples from Black Lives Matter to the March for Our Lives, from the Women’s March to the Dreamers to children taking the case on climate change both to the courts and the streets. Movements like these suggest that a civics education has not only taken shape outside of the schoolhouse walls but is possible for all students when we think creatively and expansively what it means to prepare young people for engaged citizenship.
Yet, national surveys suggest that there is a disconnect between the abstract and, too often, an uninspiring approach that characterizes much of civics education in schools and the grounded induction into self-governance and collective action of the streets. This gap is not only confusing but ultimately, alienating for young people:
- Opportunities for civics education are thin. Only nine states and the District of Columbia require one year of US government or civics. The other 41 states make room for a half year or no civics requirement at all. The data suggest low rates of civics education across the board – only one in four Americans can name all three branches of government; public trust in government is only at 18 percent, and volunteerism rates are significantly down. Moreover, students receive scant education on key movements in American history – like the Civil Rights Movement — that serve as historical case studies in civic engagement. Lastly, opportunities for deep engagement appear uneven, with wealthier and predominantly white students getting more robust opportunities in school to participate in engaging civics education.
A focus on facts leaves little room for applying the lessons of citizenship in the real world. A review of state standards for social studies suggests that most traditional civics curricula consist of long lists of topics that cover the structure of government and the mechanics of participation. But this way of defining and regulating civics favors an “information-cramming” approach rather than an applied approach in which students think and act deeply on civic commitments. No state has experiential learning or local problem-solving components in its civics requirements.
- A full overhaul of civics education is needed if the next generation is to be fully equipped to engage. Increasingly, young people themselves are presenting the challenge to traditional notions of civic education. Much of that education extends far beyond the classroom – with issues of climate change, gun violence, sexual harassment and assault, racism, and support for teachers and quality education – making the news regularly. Very little in traditional approaches to civics prepares young people to engage in those issues – in some cases, engagement is discouraged. In the contemporary context, what is coming into the focus is the widening gap between what gets counted as civics education and what students themselves see as essential knowledge against the backdrop of a diverse, complex society.
Most importantly, students themselves are raising the call for civics education that is more attached to their lives. In Rhode Island, Aleita Cook and her fellow students, have filed a federal lawsuit against the state, arguing that failing to prepare young people for citizenship violates their Constitutional rights. According to her interview by the New York Times, Cook, who has never taken a class in government, civics, or economics, indicated that her education has left her with gaping holes in her understanding of many practical questions about modern citizenship, from how to vote to “what the point of taxes are.” On April 20, 2018, hundreds of thousands of students walked out during the National School Walkout to protest gun violence in the largest collective civics lesson in recent memory. These examples demonstrate that a comprehensive overhaul of civics education is needed.
Yet out-of-school time programs may be uniquely positioned to fill in some gaps and provide models for what education – civic (and otherwise) – must look like in the future. Many of the most innovative civics courses are adapted from, inspired by, or facilitated in partnership with community-based programs:
- Chicago Public Schools’ (CPS) participate curriculum helps students meet newly required state civics graduation standards by emphasizing a flexible curriculum that pairs strong content in government, politics, and civic participation with a discussion of current and controversial issues and authentic opportunities to interact with policymakers and community leaders. Students in CPS schools also have opportunities to participate in student voice committees, to bring real-world projects and proposals on issues that affect their education to leaders within their school and community and across the district.
- Generation Citizen is a nonprofit that teaches “action civics” to more than 30,000 middle and high school students. A semester-long course provides the structure for a civics curriculum based on students’ identities and the issues they care about – public transportation, community violence, youth employment. The approach encourages students to think through root causes, develop an action plan, and get involved in their communities.
If these strategies sound familiar, it’s perhaps because they are common and flexible tools housed right in the out-of-school time wheelhouse. We are experts at youth engagement; rooted in the heart of our communities; flexible in our understanding of identity, diversity, equity and democratic self-governance; we create safe space in contested landscapes; and we understand how to act in the best interests of all people in order to foster the best possible developmental outcomes.
If these strategies feel increasingly critical to restoring the health of our democracy, it’s perhaps that the crises we face require them. In a socio-political environment in which “we must take sides” to advance the cause of justice, the developmental imperative that young people themselves bring to the table is clear – they need allies and partners to come alongside them, poised to support the kind of out-of-the-box, real-world civics education that all of us – whether young people or adults – will need to meet the 21st century at the intersection of our country’s – and the world’s – greatest needs. The curriculum is out there: let’s meet young people at the schoolhouse doors, and then move with them out into our streets and communities.
For breakfast, I had a yogurt and hot, black coffee.