Report urges schools to lead civics comeback

Report urges schools to lead civics comeback

(Calif.) A new report designed to restore civics curriculum in all K-12 classrooms aligns research-based outcomes from the study of responsible citizenship with eight state education priorities, and urges school leaders to pilot the subject’s return now rather than wait for the bureaucratic process of a standards update.

However, the number one recommendation in Revitalizing K-12 Civic Learning in California is for the state to revise its 15-year-old History-Social Science Content Standards and associated curriculum frameworks to incorporate an emphasis on civic learning, starting in kindergarten, so all students acquire the knowledge, skills and values they need to succeed in college, career and civic life.

“High quality civic learning is proven to improve student achievement by teaching children skills for today’s world such as critical thinking, problem solving, communication, collaboration, and initiative,” Sacramento County Superintendent of Schools David Gordon, co-chair of the California Task Force on K-12 Civic Learning, said in a statement announcing release of the group’s report Tuesday.

“This is not a report that will sit on the shelf. The groundswell of support is tremendous and work has already begun to implement these recommendations,” said Gordon, who with court Justice Judith McConnell, guided the 21-member team of education, law, business and labor experts who created the blueprint for Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson and Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye.

Civic engagement in the U.S. – and California – the task force found, has continued to drop off since the late 1940s.

According to sources cited in the report, the United States recently ranked 139th in voter participation of 172 democracies around the world. Nationally, less than half of eligible young people ages 18-24 voted in the 2012 elections, and nearly half of Americans who participated in a 2011 Pew study said states’ rights, rather than slavery, was the main cause of the Civil War.

In California, a survey of 2,366 high school seniors revealed that just 60 percent could correctly answer questions designed to test their knowledge of current political issues and the structures and functions of government, and less than half the seniors participating in the same survey viewed being actively involved in state and local issues as their responsibility.

“Unfortunately, in our nation and our state, civic participation is not where we need it to be in order to sustain our democracy and flourish in the 21st century global economy,” the task force wrote. “In fact, by nearly every measure – news readership, voting, political engagement, philanthropy, volunteering, church attendance – civic engagement has been declining since the end of World War II.”

To counter this trend, in addition to updating the state’s history/social science standards, the task force makes recommendations for California that include:

  • Integrating civic learning into state assessment and accountability systems for students, schools and districts, including periodic reporting to the legislature and the public on the state of students’ civic learning skills. Data from a civics matrix test should be incorporated into the current revision of the Academic Performance Index (API), the group said.
  • Improving professional learning experiences for teachers and administrators to help them implement civic learning in schools, which could be accomplished by incorporating civics education in Common Core State Standards professional development opportunities.
  • Developing an articulated sequence of instruction in civic learning, aligned to revised standards, across all of K-12. At each grade level, civic learning should draw on the research-based “Six Proven Practices” discussed in the report, and include work that is action-oriented and project-based and that develops digital literacy.
  • Establishing a communication mechanism so community stakeholders can easily connect with teachers and students on civic education and engagement. Students need to get out of the school building to practice civic engagement, and civic leaders need to come into schools to engage students.

The state should also consider providing incentives for local school districts to fund civic learning under the new Local Control Funding Formula and its associated accountability plans.

Until the state acts on these recommendations, however, task force members strongly encourage school leaders to proactively move ahead with incorporating civic education into core academics.

In high-quality civic learning, students learn to think critically, develop research skills, assess and synthesize information and present coherent arguments based on data, task force members said. To put these skills into practice, students work with others in groups, organize activities in their communities and speak persuasively in public – all themes also emphasized as tenets of the Common Core standards.

The Local Control and Accountability plans required under the LCFF present the perfect opportunity for parents and stakeholders to lobby district officials to include civics lessons as part of a school’s curriculum, the report states.

The task force even lays out for districts how various outcomes of civics education can be used to meet each of the eight state priorities for student and school success.

For example, with research showing that civic learning promotes academic achievement and supports college and career readiness, civics education programs can be used to address how a district is meeting state directives around Pupil Achievement.

When it comes to the priority of having a positive, supportive school climate, the task force wrote, civic learning can impact a wide array of outcomes for students, ranging from academic achievement to personal character.

But educators must take the lead.

“Teachers and school administrators set the tone by modeling civic values and civic engagement,” the report reads. “The resulting positive school climate has been shown to promote students’ overall learning and academic achievement, reduce high-risk behaviors and increase teacher retention rates.”

Successful civics programs, although the exception rather than the norm, are already thriving in some schools throughout the state, and the nature of civics learning falls in line with the goals of new Common Core standards in English and Math, currently being implemented in all K-12 classrooms, the report points out.

The report lays out a framework for both the state and local educational agencies to follow, and offers suggested resources for bringing civics education to California’s six million students.

The chief benefits of civic learning are a vibrant and informed civic life and democracy and a healthy society,” authors wrote. “In addition, civic learning done right engages students by making what they learn at school more relevant to real life. It promotes academic achievement, as well, and prevents some students from dropping out.”