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A Civics Revival In Education

by Meg Butterworth

“It may be an easy thing to make a Republic; but it is a very laborious thing to make Republicans; and woe to the republic that rests upon no better foundations than ignorance, selfishness, and passion.” 

Those were the cautionary words of Horace Mann, whom many regard as the founder of American education. Although spoken in 1848, his words are profoundly relevant today as we precariously inch our way into 2021, reeling from the January 6 attack on the Capitol and questioning how 2020’s devastating events will define our future under the new Biden administration. Media sources daily debate how we will overcome our political tribalism, racist past and present, government distrust, and rampant disinformation campaigns. It’s heavy. Why didn’t we heed Mann’s warnings? 

Whatever happened to civics class? You know, the study of the rights and duties of citizenship?

According to a 2018 report by the American Federation of Teachers, only nine states and the District of Columbia require one year of U.S. government or civics. Thirty states require a half year, and the remaining 11 states have no civics requirement. 

Despite this spotty approach, there is still hope for our democracy. Signs of renewed interest in civics both nationally and at the state level are surfacing. A federal bipartisan bill called the Educating for Democracy Act was introduced in the Senate in December 2020 to authorize $1 billion a year for six years toward grants for American history and civics. And beginning in the 2020-21 school year, Washington high school students are now required to pass a semester-long stand-alone civics class in order to graduate. Although civics standards existed prior to the mandate, many schools opted to embed civics lessons into government and U.S. history classes rather than have a stand-alone class. This created inconsistencies across school districts and raised concerns that the content had become diluted or even ignored. Under the new legislation, school districts maintain the freedom to create their own curriculum for the stand-alone class, as long as it meets the Washington State Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction’s (OSPI) content standards. 

“I think we’re starting to see the pendulum swing back towards the sciences and social sciences,” says Jerry Price, social studies program director for OSPI. As a former middle school teacher, he’d noticed that “[more and more] students were coming without a baseline understanding of the government or history.”

He’s not alone in his observations. According to a 2016 Annenberg Public Policy survey, only 26% of Americans can name all three branches of government. Roughly one third of current U.S. citizens flunk the exam given to immigrants applying for citizenship, 90% of whom pass on their first try. The Gallup organization reported in 2013 that only 35% of poll respondents were able to say who represented them in Congress. 

A Pivotal Moment

The decline in civics education dates back to the early 1960s. As the Cold War raged on, civics education became less uniform across U.S. schools. Class time was traded for math, science, and engineering in order to keep pace with the Soviets. Policies like George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act, first passed in 2001, placed an increased priority on standardized test scores in reading and math. 

Interestingly, a decline in voter turnout also occurred. A recent TIME article on U.S. voter turnout reports that it has hovered just above 50% since the 1972 presidential election. And in true American form, this decline has fallen along racial lines. National data show minority and low-income communities have a lower voter turnout than affluent, white communities. The Emerald’s own Marcus Green reported on this trend here in Seattle for a 2018 Seattle Times article. “Voter turnout is higher and more in line with city averages the closer you move to expensive Lake Washington waterfront property,” he wrote. It’s lower among South Seattle’s high concentration of African Americans, Latinos, Asians, and other People of Color.

Fingers can be pointed at systemic racism, a growing disillusionment with government, and voter suppression to explain this harsh reality. But what about the role of inadequate and inconsistent civics education? Arguably, that’s a form of voter suppression in and of itself. If civics is not given due time in the classroom, and if it’s not taught in a way that is relevant and allows students, particularly students of color, to see themselves in our history and our systems, then why would they want to participate? 

But wait, you might be thinking. Didn’t we just see a significant increase in voter turnout in the 2020 presidential election? We sure did, especially among young adults. According to November estimates from the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) , 52% to 55% of voting-eligible young people ages 18–29 cast a ballot in 2020 compared to 42% to 44% in 2016. In Washington, data from the Office of the Secretary of State show that 72.3% of registered 18–24 year-olds voted. In 2016, it was 59%. 

So, what does this tell us? At the very least, it suggests that there’s renewed momentum and we’re at a pivotal moment. COVID-19, police killings of unarmed Black people, intense polarization over the actions of the former president, and our country’s racial reckoning drove more people to the polls (or mailboxes) this year. What better time to bring attention back to civics and the necessity of an informed, inclusive, and active citizenry? 

Crossing Disciplines

Requiring a stand-alone civics class is one step in the right direction. “This is an opportunity to re-engage students,” says OSPI’s Price, referring to the mandate. It’s also an opportunity to rethink how we teach civics concepts and principles. Price acknowledges that “COVID has made us have more conversations about how we get out of lanes … arts lane, math lane.” In other words, he says, “K–12 puts learning in boxes. So much of the power of education comes from making those connections across content areas and across topics … Civics action is at the center of so much of that.” 

One opportunity for connection is between civics and ethnic studies. Washington’s new civics mandate comes at the same time as a newly formed OSPI Ethnic Studies Advisory Committee. The committee formed in response to a 2019 legislative mandate to identify and make available ethnic studies materials and resources for use in grades 7–12. Legislation in 2020 expanded this to K–12. 

Two districts that are making this connection are Spokane Public Schools and Seattle Public Schools. 

In Spokane, it’s been in the works for a few years. At a school board meeting for Spokane Public Schools four years ago, a group of students of color spoke out about how the U.S. educational system has marginalized their experience. One parent later shared with Chief Academic Officer for Spokane Public Schools Heather Bybee that the district’s English curriculum offered only two primary narratives of the African American experience — a slave narrative and Barack Obama — with nothing in between. The district responded by researching new curriculum materials, but couldn’t find anything that matched their unique population. As a World Relief Center, Spokane teaches many students from refugee families; Spokane County has the second-largest Marshallese population in the U.S., for instance. The region also includes members of many tribal nations. The district’s answer, ultimately, was to create its own course called American Perspectives: Putting the Us in U.S. History. Offered for the first time this year, it is an optional year-long course for high school juniors who may choose between it, U.S. History, or AP History. Approximately 225 students have opted to take the class so far. 

The curriculum is hands-on and pulls from current events and students’ personal experiences. Bybee explains that students investigate their background and lineage and together build an understanding of American history. They also explore national stories, such as the Black Lives Matter protests, and look at how those stories have impacted the Spokane community. The final project culminates in students reflecting on their experience and asking which community was not represented in the course that year, so that it may be included for next year’s students. This allows the class to be dynamic and change from year to year. 

When developing the curriculum, the district sought feedback from students. Bybee recalls showing the curriculum to a Marshallese student who cried when looking through it. She said she had never seen herself in anything and that it motivated her to want to be a teacher. 

Bybee admits that American Perspectives wouldn’t have happened without kids calling the district to account. “I think that is grounded in civics … It’s speaking up for yourself. Having agency. It’s acknowledging that things are not perfect, but striving to make things better.” 

Seattle Public Schools (SPS) has also been working on ways to blend civics and ethnic studies. To meet the state’s new stand-alone civics requirement, SPS altered its American Government and Economics course for seniors so that it is now called American Government, Civics, and Economics. Along with emphasizing state and local government more than before, seniors will learn about tribal governments and sovereignty. Kathleen Vasquez, literacy and social studies program manager for SPS, explains that previously, students only learned about tribal governments in their 4th grade Washington State History class. In 2019, the district adopted the Since Time Immemorial curriculum for grades K–12 to correct for omitting the history and current affairs of Washington’s 29 sovereign nations. Starting in April, the district’s Native Education Department will provide SPS teachers with professional development on how to teach tribal governments and sovereignty so that the material is historically accurate and taught from a Native perspective. Training was supposed to occur this past fall but had to be postponed to prioritize technical training for remote learning. “It will really be next year when we see far more of these changes coming into the curriculum,” says Vasquez.

Where the pandemic has slowed some efforts, it has fueled others. Starting in February, SPS is implementing a pilot for a new district-wide accessible course for 11th graders called Black Studies U.S. History. Part of the district’s new Black Education Program, the class will focus on the Black and African American experience from a national and global perspective. It is optional for juniors and fulfills their second semester of U.S. History. Forty-six students from across the district have signed up. 

“It was the ‘fortune’ of the pandemic and the ‘gift’ of remote learning that allowed us to think outside the box and realize an all-city draw for the class,” says Vasquez, who worked with the ethnic studies program manager to research resources for the course. 

Teaching Future Voters

When asked about her district’s approach to civics, Heather Bybee says that “Spokane has been ahead of the curve.” For at least a decade, civics has already been taught to Spokane’s high school seniors as a stand-alone class. But more than that, she says, “civics is a set of standards that lives throughout K–12 … it has a place in each of our grade level Social Studies courses.” The district has also worked with the League of Women Voters on voter registration drives. League volunteers go into history classes (in person during a non-pandemic year and virtually during remote learning) to talk about the history of voting rights and register students who are 18 and older. 

Registering young adults has also been a growing concern for SPS. “We have done a much deeper dive into civics in Seattle Public Schools over the past five years because of the reality that we’re losing our young people at the ballot,” says Vasquez. “Who were deciding these important political figures in our lives were mainly people who were older, and yet young people are impacted.” It wasn’t until the 2018 elections that young people started to show interest again. “Young people stopped believing their voice matters; they couldn’t see the relevance about what was happening in D.C.” 

In response, SPS has devoted more time to state and local elections and initiatives. Over the past five years, SPS has partnered with King County Elections to hold mock elections in grades six and higher. Students learned about local initiatives that resonated with them, such as the plastic bag ban and soda tax, and voted on those issues. Two years ago, King County Elections partnered with SPS on voter registration campaigns. High schools that chose to participate launched a voter registration campaign on Washington’s Temperance and Good Citizenship Day, which occurs annually on January 16, and competed to see which school could register the most students 18 and older, as well as gather pledges from those under 18. The primary focus was not so much on the competition as on encouraging students to engage with their peers around voting. 

These days, teaching good citizenship also can’t take place without emphasizing media literacy. Both Spokane and Seattle have taken steps to weave the subject into all classes, especially those that require research. Starting in elementary school, Spokane students are taught how to discern the quality of the information they get from online media sources. As Bybee explains, “the average student has a cellphone by 3rd or 4th grade. If we’re not helping them to navigate, then we’re doing a disservice.” In Seattle, district librarians have been a driving force behind teaching media literacy. “They understand the power of misinformation,” says Vasquez. 

These efforts have been bolstered by new social studies standards issued by OSPI in 2019. Vasquez explains that the standards are inquiry-centered and encourage teachers and students to “begin with a question and use multiple sources to answer that question … to do critical work around inquiry and research and multiple perspectives.”

It’s Their World

The tide is turning. Young adults are becoming more civically engaged. Perhaps Seattle and Spokane’s work building more inclusive curricula, making subjects relevant, and partnering with community organizations on voter outreach is paying off. In Spokane County, 56.4% of registered 18–24 year-olds voted in 2016. In 2020, it increased to 68.7%. In King County, it was 65.5% in 2016 and 77.4% in 2020. And perhaps Washington’s new civics mandate will result in even more youth participation in 2022 and 2024. One can hope. 

Still, we can’t overlook how the dire problems our world faces have ignited a renewed fervor among many youth, regardless of their schooling. For some, it’s forced them to realize that if change is going to happen, it must come from their active participation in our system — and it is up to them to ensure our system still works. 

“The days of being marginalized for being young is kind of coming to an end,” says Bybee. “They’re starting to see their power, and that it’s their world.”

Meg Butterworth is a freelance writer who moved to Seattle 24 years ago from Philadelphia. She has become an “adult” in the Emerald City and frequently asks herself as she looks at her two teenage children, “where has the time gone?” Meg has a background in nonprofits and fundraising and writes about race, equity, education, housing insecurity, and the inspiring people and organizations that are actively working to improve the quality of life in our community.

Featured image is attributed to Jovan J under a Creative Commons 2.0 license (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

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