Educational reformer John Dewey spoke of the public schools as “laboratories of democracy.” They all but stopped serving this role for most of the past 50 years, as schools focused on STEM and English literacy and placed social studies and civics in the basement of education requirements. Even today, with the call for teaching Civics in K-12 loud and clear among hundreds of organizations, including teachers’ unions, state legislatures, lawyers, the courts, businesses, parents, and students, $5 per student is spent on science, technology, engineering and math; 5 cents per student is spent on social studies.

Our nation has never been, since the Civil War, in the depth of a polarized political divide like the one we have experienced over the past two decades, with conspiracy theories rampant throughout a substantial population, accompanied by many ordinary citizens lacking knowledge about how government works and about their own agency to work toward change. There could not be a more important moment for our schools — the only institution we have where most children come together for a common purpose — to fulfill their function. As stated in the Carnegie Foundation report, The Civic Missions of Our Schools, they are our “guardians of democracy.”

In March, the Educating for Democracy report (https://bit.ly/39kaBQQ), a product of 300 individuals and institutions with diverse views from every sector of our nation, created an impressive set of principles and curriculum frameworks for civics education. They demonstrate how programs like the New Civics and Action Civics can provide our 100,000 schools, 60 million students, and 1 million teachers with a K-12 road map over the next decade. The report encourages schools to partner with organizations whose focus is “liberty and justice for all,” to help transform our democracy into what we tout it to be — a space in which all citizens understand that they have the power to speak and vote on what matters to them, their communities, and the nation. (https://bit.ly/39l0LOQ)

The mission of the K-12 road map, which is adaptable to the needs and interests of local schools, provides an inspiring set of guidelines for reinventing the teaching and learning of civics and media literacy. These include:

  • To inspire students to become involved in our constitutional democracy and help to sustain our republic.
  • To tell a full and complete story of America’s plural yet shared story.
  • To celebrate the compromises needed to make our democracy work.
  • To cultivate civic honesty and patriotism that allows them to both love and critique our nation.

The values that undergird the New Civics curriculum provide equity for all students and build self-reflection, a growth mindset and multiple modes of critical inquiry in the practice of constitutional democracy. Students take on problems in their own communities, serve in student government, on school boards, and town and city councils; and advocate for changes with the proper authorities.

Where are these practices already happening? All over the nation, with the most rigorous requirements to date in Florida. There, a middle and high school course in civics is required that includes Action Civics. When Emma González made her impassioned national speech after the shootings at Marjorie Stoneham Douglass High School, which led to the organization of teenagers around the nation working to end gun violence, she held her civics syllabus up high in her hand. Hers was the first cohort to go through the new Florida requirements.

Student-led Action Civics also happens in cities and towns throughout the Midwest, where elementary school students take on issues such as how jobs are distributed in their classroom, who picks up trash in the playground, and how to go about changing lunchroom offerings that discriminate against some children’s dietary requirements. One fifth grade class elected to register 300 seniors at their local high school to vote — and did.

Action Civics grows out of students learning about how history has been shaped not just by famous leaders but by “average” citizens like themselves. It includes a character education curriculum that builds tolerance for diverse points of view and democratic dispositions. If reinforced in every grade, this curriculum produces students who vote in greater numbers, feel authorized to speak to public officials about important issues, and believe their schools have a welcoming atmosphere because they are encouraged as learners to think for themselves and take initiative for the projects they care about.

In 2020, the Department of Education in California began giving out Civic Learning Awards, which are co-sponsored by a former state superintendent and the chief justice of the California Supreme Court. The awards “celebrate successful efforts to engage students in civic learning and identify successful models that can be replicated in other schools.” Since 2014, California has had a Power of Democracy Steering Committee that works with multiple stakeholders on revising K-12 Civics Learning. California high school students can now graduate with a State Seal of Civic Engagement on their diploma.

In Santa Fe Public Schools, the Office for Teaching and Learning created a substantial civics and media engagement curriculum that was launched in the spring and fall of 2020-21. The staff created a unit of lessons for all students in all grade levels in response to the pandemic. Primary grade students explored the relationship between helping to keep their schools clean and orderly and coughing/sneezing into tissues. Upper elementary students delved into issues of free speech, democratic decision-making, and working to keep each other safe. Middle and high school students applied media literacy skills to articles about free speech and social distancing. Students in seventh grade used media literacy skills to read a broad spectrum of articles on the pandemic and learned how to fact-check them.

We are off to a good start. Now we need to continue and grow this program with the support of key stakeholders — teachers and their unions, school administrators, legislators, lawyers and judges, along with interested public citizens.

Lois Rudnick is a retired professor of American Studies and member of the Leadership Circle of the Interfaith Coalition for Public Education, www.icpesantafe.org.

(3) comments

mark Coble

I wonder if we will ever RAISE graduation standards? Nope, never. We will continue to lower expectations and will not use merit as a standard.

Lisa Jo Goldman

I have taught Media Literacy for over 25 years... Media and Culture, and Media and Gender at the college level. I currently ensure that MY high school students go deep into media literacy AND cultural criticism, AND....activism

Lois Rudnick

Dear Lisa,

That’s great. Where do you teach high school?

Welcome to the discussion.

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