Seizing the moment to improve civics education

Getty Images/CastaldoStudio

Andrew Tripodo

How can schools encourage responsible and engaged citizenship? This question has moved from ever-relevant to deeply urgent by a political climate defined by coarsened discourse, sharp polarization, and profound distrust.

While many educators are justifiably demoralized by our current situation, some choose to be hopeful. Richard Kahlenberg and Clifford Janey spoke for many in education when they asked in The Atlantic if 2016's crazed election cycle might represent a "Sputnik moment" for civic education: Just as the Soviet Union's launch of the first artificial satellite in 1957 drove an urgent and renewed national commitment to science and math education, perhaps concern about our contentious political discourse and decayed common knowledge base will do the same for civic education today. Forty years ago, all eyes were on the stars, and educators leveraged the public attention to improve science and math education. Today, all eyes are on Washington, and by extension on our schools: Could civic education undergo a similar transformation?

A promising sign comes from Louise Dubé, executive director of iCivics, an educational content provider. In a recent phone conversation, she told us that the explosion of interest in her organization's civic education tools and online games during the election year has largely continued into 2017. "User growth was off the charts during the presidential campaigns, and even now, significantly more users are consistently engaging at higher rates than before," she said.

That's good news, and we could use more of it. Less than one-quarter of eighth graders scored "proficient" or higher on the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress civics exam—a rate that makes the most recent NAEP reading scores (34 percent at or above proficient) look comparatively robust. Indeed, it's fair to say that the citizen-making role of schools has become a forgotten purpose of public education. In 2016, the Education Commission of the States found that, while every state requires social studies or civics content in their curriculum, only seventeen include it in their accountability frameworks. Math, by contrast, is included in all fifty states. Likewise, a 2015 review by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, the education-policy think tank where Robert is a senior fellow, showed that the overwhelming majority of "mission statements" of the one hundred largest school districts in the United States made no mention whatsoever of civics or citizenship, or of schools' role in preparing students to participate in our democracy.

The practitioner's problem

While the need to double down on civics in schools has become painfully obvious, it is less obvious how we should do so. Many high schools are responding by infusing authentic civic experiences into the school day—bringing students to state capitals, helping them organize "get out the vote" drives, creating "social change" projects, and regularly teaching current events. As former co-teachers of a class designed to pair government theory with current events, we support such practices. But we are also well aware of the substance-thinning traps that well-meaning civics teachers can fall into when they focus on projects geared mainly toward engagement or relevance.

But before sharing our thoughts on how best to blend traditional content with "hands-on learning," let's start by looking at how both traditional in-class and operational civic instruction fall short on their own. Consider two scenarios.

Citizens of the state of boredom

A classroom of seventeen-year-olds collectively half-listen to a teacher delivering a lecture on the United States' system of divided government. They are in their junior or senior years of high school, learning about the basic makeup of the system that structures their lives, a system that they will soon be able to influence—one that is defined by conflict and intrigue, but that is widely regarded as one of the most brilliant and successful experiments in the history of the world. And they're bored.

But the teacher isn't. She intones, "And as Madison said in Federalist No. 51, 'Ambition must be made to counteract ambition.' His thinking was that, since humans are naturally rapacious, vindictive, and selfishly ambitious, the best governments are those that pit the ambitions of individuals against one another, with the idea that competition produces a common good. So, given what we've read of the Federalist Papers so far, and what we've discussed in class, how did Madison's assessment of human nature lead to his belief in the need for a government with a strong system of checks and balances?"


What's missing? What could this teacher have done differently?

Sugar-rush civics

Here's a different, increasingly common scenario: This time it's a couple of buses of fourteen-year-olds pulling up to the state house in Tallahassee, Florida. The students march through the halls, as their social studies teachers narrate what they're seeing, and remind them of the legislative issue they have prepared to discuss with the state senators who have cleared time on their calendars to meet and pose for photographs.

Their conversations mostly go well. The state senators love the photo op and the chance to field softball questions from the kids about the bill for which students are lobbying. Teachers beam at the students, satisfied with themselves and pleased that their charges came across as well-prepared. Then the buses are loaded back up and everyone leaves, probably with a fairly strong understanding of their chosen issue and with the powerful lesson that where they live, individuals—even young ones—have a say in state issues.

Potent stuff, certainly. The kids came to appreciate the core advantage of democracy: It endows every individual with political power, a power best exercised by the knowledgeable. Students had read up on their issue, sought out their representatives, and lobbied for their cause: That's what citizenship in a democracy looks like.

But while this type of field trip and other methods for teaching "operational citizenship" are essential, they're not sufficient. If not closely paired with core information on the structures and theories of government, these methods are akin to a science teacher's doing a lab on building model volcanoes without teaching students the geophysical causes of volcanic eruptions. It's science, it's cool, but it doesn't support in-depth understanding—and it would be a lot stickier if it did.

Although students would probably learn something from building a model volcano, think of how much more they would learn if they did so after completing a few lessons on tectonic plates. Each action would take on extra layers of meaning, as the students connected what they're doing now back to what they learned before. A science class made up exclusively of labs would almost certainly be better than nothing, but infusing those labs with relevant knowledge makes for a far richer and more engaging experience.

Likewise, authentic civics activities unsupported by knowledge of government structures and basic political theory risk providing something of a civic education sugar rush. The momentary thrill of public engagement doesn't provide enduring knowledge—the how it's done and why it matters—of deep civic education. Conversely, a close study of foundational documents and historical movements risks seeming irrelevant unless students can see their effects on the world today.

Why operational citizenship needs political theory

In short, our zeal to make civics "relevant" could end with us forgetting to teach it—accidentally swapping out essential information for "hands-on experiences." On the basis of evidence like those aforementioned NAEP results, as well as our own observations, we fear this split is increasingly happening in schools. This is especially discouraging because studies of government, economics, and history give kids (and adults) the conceptual frameworks they need to interpret their civic experiences—from reading breaking news to engaging in exchanges with politicians to understanding the voting behavior of their families—with sophistication and nuance. Operational citizenship needs political theory; otherwise we end up with a civic-education snake with its head cut off—a whole lot of action that lacks intentionality, context, and, ultimately, meaning.

Rather than thinking about traditional government and civics instruction as something separate or exclusive from field trips to state capitals or mini-lessons on current events, educators would do well to remember the power of each to enliven the other. So, rather than closing the textbook on Marbury v. Madison before the current events discussion, have your students keep it open. Ask them how that decision might help us make sense of confirmation-hearing debates between Supreme Court nominees and U.S. senators on the role of the court in making and interpreting law.

Rather than scheduling that field trip to the Tallahassee state house during the unit on a particular local issue, schedule it during the unit on federalism. Make kids explore why there are so many different types of lawmakers in our country, charged with so many different tasks, often fighting over jurisdiction on so many different issues. Why make it so complicated, rather than just concentrating power in the hands of a few people—wouldn't things run more smoothly that way? Suddenly, students aren't just walking down ornate halls to discuss a single bill, they are witnessing the material consequences of the founding fathers' fear of monarchy.

Case study: The hybrid model

Both of us have worked with Democracy Prep Public Schools, a charter network based in Harlem that has a mission of educating "responsible citizen scholars." At the high school level, as part of that mission, all seniors are required to take a course titled Sociology of Change—which happens to be a helpful example of the kind of hybrid civic education approach we've been advocating.

In this capstone class, each student is tasked with developing a Change The World project, which diagnoses and addresses a social problem that irks them—whether local, national, or global. Over the years, students have launched book drives for underfunded schools abroad, Black Lives Matter-inspired protests outside local police stations, mentorship programs that pair Democracy Prep high school students with middle school students, and literally hundreds more—all of them driven and implemented entirely by students. The project is a good example of what we've been calling authentic civics. But here's the catch: Class time is generally divided between hands-on work on their projects and whole-class considerations of The Prince, Rules For Radicals, the Federalist Papers, and other seminal writings on government and citizenship.

The class aims to acquaint students with timeless theories that teach how to accumulate and use political power at the very moment that they are expected to utilize those theories in service of issues that are important to them. Students end the year with the experience of having used political theory to advance personal projects, and with a basic understanding of how to navigate governing structures to realize specific goals.

In addition, every Friday the Sociology of Change course is supplemented by a Senior Seminar in American Democracy, another class common to all Democracy Prep seniors, and one that the two of us had the pleasure of co-teaching at Democracy Prep Charter High School in New York City during the 2015–2016 school year. This seminar endeavors to teach foundational questions in American government via explorations of current events. For example, when Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia died in early 2016 and the internet exploded with cries of grief and joy, our students used the opportunity to consider Scalia's ideas about the role of the courts in American government, and to compare the late Justice's "originalist" vision of jurisprudence with that of other legal experts who favor a "living Constitution" approach.

As many educated adults argued about whether it was right to take pleasure in a person's death, we went on to talk about whether an unelected panel of nine Yale and Harvard graduates should be able to check the elected branches of government. Why, we asked, would the founding fathers create an institution so powerful and seemingly anti-democratic as the Supreme Court? Did they think there were limits to popular rule? Were they right? Could that concern help explain the seemingly nonsensical existence of the Electoral College? Students ended the term writing a paper that responded to these questions: "Should a free society prioritize popular rule or reasonable rule? Must these priorities always be in tension? Why or why not? Use evidence from our texts and current events to support your argument."

Connections between theory and current events don't always come easily, and we sometimes failed to bridge the gap. In the midst of a lesson on the so-called elastic clause, a student in our class asked, "What do these theories have to do with me? Why aren't we learning about what politicians are doing right now? I mean, that stuff matters." The comment was devastating to us as civics educators. The elastic clause (Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution) gives Congress the right to pass any laws "necessary and proper" to fulfill its enumerated duties—amounting to a huge expansion of power. The student's question was an indictment of the disconnected approach we had veered into without realizing it: We were teaching them about a Constitutional provision constantly employed by Congress to pass laws that encircled the student questioner's life, but we may as well have been yapping about Marcel Proust's gastrointestinal travails.

At the start of the next class, we looked at recent situations in which the elastic clause had been put to use, then together considered how our society might be different if it didn't exist. Social studies teachers are always teaching current events, whether we realize it or not. The more we realize it, the better we become at our jobs. History, government, and civics textbooks can be flashlights that illuminate the machinations of our society and help our students define their roles in shaping it. But if we forget to orient our textbooks toward the world, the lights they produce are wasted.

Experiences, contextualized

Experiential learning is most powerful when it draws upon prior knowledge. If what you learned in a classroom can be used to make sense of what's in front of your nose, chances are that information will stick—and survive to add another layer of meaning to future experiences. So, teachers and school leaders: Please, go ahead and build in time for students to engage in authentic civic experiences. They need them. But remember that they also need to know what they're doing and why it matters within our system of government. Without basic background knowledge, those experiences just won't mean much.

Andrew Tripodo is a social studies and debate teacher at the Cushman School in Miami and the head of curriculum design at Knowledge of Careers, Inc. He was previously the history curriculum specialist at Democracy Prep Public Schools.

Editor’s notes: A version of this article was first published in the ASCD’s Educational Leadership journal. It is not available for reprint without the permission of ASCD.

The views expressed herein represent the opinions of the author and not necessarily the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.

Robert Pondiscio
Robert Pondiscio is a Senior Fellow and the Vice President for External Affairs at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.