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Comprehensive civics education should lead with equity

Jennings is New England executive director for Generation Citizen, a national civics education nonprofit. Wilkes is the organization's senior director of policy and advocacy.

Governments in roughly half of the country — specifically, 28 states — have passed or are considering state policy action related to critical race theory. So far, 11 bills have become law. Some states are linking critical race theory to a vision of civics education that discourages teaching about current events and bans student access to project-based civics, its proven effectiveness of this academic strategy. Despite half of the country contemplating the foregoing approaches to civics and history instruction, we think democracy education should move in the opposite direction.

Comprehensive civic learning, certainly, should teach the Bill of Rights, the Constitution and the Federalist Papers. But civics shouldn't stop there. Students also deserve access to a culturally relevant democracy education that imparts critical thinking and research skills, encourages appreciation for building consensus and provides opportunities to engage elected officials on issues of their choice. Equity-centered civic education of this sort isn't partisan; rather, it continues the deeply American tradition of participatory democracy.

Toward equity-centered civic education policies

Equity-centered civic education policies call for instructional approaches to civic education that develop robust civic knowledge rooted in a contextual understanding of our nation's past and present and the civic skills needed for democratic engagement.

A culturally relevant and contextual approach to civic knowledge acquisition promotes a deep and nuanced understanding of our nation's history and civic processes, acknowledging the good and bad by including contending with our nation's history of racism and the structural and systemic implications of such a history on current day civic society. It includes and celebrates varying cultural histories and perspectives and interrogates how civic engagement can and has helped drive us closer toward realizing a multiracial and participatory democracy.

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Real-world, project-based approaches to civic education, also known as "action civics," builds the civic knowledge and skills necessary for democratic engagement. As it stands, stark inequities exist in who has access to such approaches, with white and wealthier students being taught this skills-based approach at far higher rates. Such an instructional approach must be integrated into any civic education policy reform in order to close these gaps — not doing so further and intentionally disenfranchises already marginalized communities from the political process.

Equity-centered civic education policies also ensure state and local resources and human capacity exists to effectively implement quality civic learning so that gaps in access that disproportionately affect students of color and low-income youth are closed. Too often, we see laws passed and state standards revised, with no resources infused into the system to implement such reforms.

Unfortunately, all aspects of equity-centered civic education policies are under attack by the anti-CRT movement, which aims to outlaw the nuanced and truthful teaching of our nation's past, ban project-based civics education, and restrict resources for educators to teach civics well.

Looking to Massachusetts as a leader

Massachusetts has become a leader in advancing equitable, high-quality civic education policy and demonstrating proof-points that push back against the anti-CRT movement.

Most notably, in 2018, a landmark bill was signed into law requiring students to engage in at least two "student-led, nonpartisan civics projects" — one in eighth grade, and another in high school. The law also dedicated resources to implementing civics provisions by appropriating a $1.5 million Civics Trust Fund annually to focus on implementation that closes gaps in access across racial and economic lines.

A recent report, Equity in Civic Education: Insights from the Massachusetts Policy Context, highlights the collaborative work of a statewide coalition, school administrators, state and elected officials, teachers, and students, in working together over the last 10years in pursuit of equity-centered civic education policy, examining three critical stages: Coalition Building, Policy Formation & Passage, and Policy Implementation.

Takeaways for Consideration

Three takeaways from Massachusetts' approach to expanding access to an equitable civic education are worth highlighting. First, coalitions matter. Incorporating teachers, students, and a diverse range of individual and organizational members is essential to effective, representative advocacy for civics education that meets the needs of all learners in a given state. Additionally, having more voices at the table can lead to more attentiveness in ensuring that all districts and communities can access the resources, professional development opportunities, and incentives needed to continuously, and measurably, improve their approach to civics education.

Second, build a K-16 partnership that adopts a full continuum approach to civics education. In Massachusetts, the higher education community played a pivotal role in evaluating and communicating the quality of civics education in the state. Based on that research, we were able to make a data-informed case for strengthening civics education in our context.

Finally, where possible, align incentives and funding with intended outcomes. The inclusion of a civics project trust fund dedicated a new infusion of resources to help districts, schools and educators meet a new requirement of student-led, project-based education. We recognize that budget constraints and revenue realities may not permit this approach in every state, but commend it as a valuable way to ensure that the civics education policy ecosystem is optimally supported in order to support high-quality civic learning.

The road ahead

Civics and history education is at an inflection point in America's classrooms. One route forward is to sidestep the difficult aspects of our national and state legacies, opting instead to play it safe and stick to the founding documents, largely avoid the news and downplay experiential civics. Another path forward, the one we recommend, is to provide an equitable civic education that weds deep understanding of how government works to the lived experiences of all students, culturally relevant instruction and project-based learning. Our students, and our constitutional, multiracial democracy, deserve nothing less.

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