At a time of extreme political polarization, a bold and comprehensive proposal reimagining civic education shows a path toward a healthier American democracy.
The "Roadmap to Educating for American Democracy," released Tuesday, provides guidance to national, state, local and tribal leaders on how to strengthen K-12 history and civic education practices and standards. This roadmap is the culmination of 18 months of collaboration by more than 300 scholars, educators and practitioners from a variety of ideological, demographic and professional backgrounds.
For decades, the public education system has failed to adequately prepare adolescents to be informed and engaged citizens. But this roadmap aims to change that by ushering in a renewed focus and investment in civic education.
When this project started in October 2019, "our constitutional democracy was not in good shape," said Paul Carrese, founding director of the School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership at Arizona State University and one of the project leaders. "Now we are all pretty convinced that our constitutional democracy is in peril."
"America's current state of polarization and civic dysfunction is the byproduct of our failure to invest in civic education for many decades," he said. "We've forgotten how to listen to each other, how to reasonably disagree on issues and why these civic virtues matter."
The federal government spends on average just 5 cents per student every year on civic education, compared to $50 per student on STEM curriculum, according to the 36-page report. And fewer than a quarter of eighth graders are considered proficient in civics by the National Assessment of Educational Progress.
"Just as we invested in STEM education in response to the Cold War, the Sputnik moment, and the economic challenges of globalization, now in response to our dysfunction and failures of governance we need an equivalent scale of investment for civic learning," the report says.
At this stage, costs for the proposals have not been estimated.
"While EAD anticipates that funding would be needed from states, the federal government and/or philanthropy to support implementation of the EAD approach at the state and local levels, EAD has not developed or provided budget targets," said Peter Levine, an associate dean and professor of citizenship and public affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College and one of the project leaders. "Rather, those behind the initiative want to prompt the conversation about what it will take to prioritize and invest in history and civics education."
This roadmap is designed to provide the country's 60 million K-12 students with high-quality civic learning opportunities, to supply 100,000 schools with the learning resources they need to be "civic ready" and to train 1 million teachers in these subjects by 2030.
Educating for American Democracy is not a national curriculum or a mandate, but rather a starting point and framework for state, local and tribal educators to further develop lesson plans and curricula. The roadmap underscores the importance of exploring America's plural, yet shared, history through an honest accounting that acknowledges both the good and the bad.
Favoring depth over breadth, the roadmap includes seven themes, with no particular hierarchy: Civic Participation, Our Changing Landscapes, We the People, A New Government and Constitution, Institutional and Social Transformation, A People in the World, and A People With Contemporary Debates and Possibilities.
Rather than a list of facts or historical events, the themes are focused on questions that inspire and encourage students to become more engaged citizens.
"A history question would be, 'Who are we, the people of the United States, and how has the nation's population changed over time?' But a civics thematic question would be, 'Why is constitutional democracy dependent on the idea of the people?'" explained Levine.
The next steps are to curate the project's website to include thousands of examples of instructional resources and to work with state officials and civil society partners on implementation.
The Roadmap to Educating for American Democracy was funded with $1.1 million in grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Department of Education. The project was driven by a team of experts from iCivics, Harvard University, Arizona State University and Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life and Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement.
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Organizers: American Democracy Project and NASPA
The 2021 Civic Learning & Democratic Engagement Meeting will facilitate exchanges of knowledge and develop a sense of community around our shared civic learning and democratic engagement work. The theme for CLDE21 is "Defining the Path Forward." The past year has created unique challenges for our institutions, students, and communities, and CLDE21 provides an opportunity to come together to reflect on the lessons learned and identify opportunities to help define our path forward.
Participants will have opportunities to network and develop their civic-minded thinking and practices through plenary sessions, special topic sessions, concurrent sessions, and civic cafes.
Solomon is on the faculty of Stanford University's design school and a creator of Vote by Design, an educational site designed to promote civic and political engagement among younger voters.
"Now more than ever, the United States needs an inaugural poem," Amanda Gorman told an interviewer a few days before the world got to know her last week. "Poetry is typically the touchstone that we go back to when we have to remind ourselves of the history that we stand on, and the future that we stand for."
Even if you didn't watch President Biden's inauguration, you've probably heard of Gorman by now. Her recitation of her original poem "The Hill We Climb" was arguably one of the most memorable and moving portions of the ceremony, and talk of her talent and poise have taken over the internet in the days since.
She is a force of nature, a voice for our time — and, whether she knows it or not, a civic futurist.
Gorman's metaphorical imagery and evocative presentation embody civic imagination in action: a powerful articulation of an aspirational future that calls us all to see ourselves in that preferred future and be a part of the change to get us there.
When she says "We lift our gazes not to what stands between us, but what stands before us," she speaks a truth that clearly resonates with our next generation of voters. I know, because I've seen it in action.
Throughout the 2020 campaign season, I spearheaded a new national nonpartisan civic education program for young people. We wanted to challenge the notion that our newest eligible voters are "apathetic" and replace it with our observation they simply lack confidence and understanding of how to use their individual agency to make a collective difference.
We brought together youth from all parts of the country and all political persuasions to bridge divides and to learn how to examine difficult civic issues from a future-seeking perspective. We asked thousands of students to envision the futures they wanted to see, and then to work backward from that point to what kind of leader would help guide us there.
What emerged was the picture of a nation of young people who, like the 22-year-old Gorman, are future-ready and hungry for more. Our young people are all, in one way or another, futurists in the making — engaged in thinking about the kind of country they want to live in and looking for ways to breathe that into existence.
There is much to repair, rebuild and reimagine. But there is also much momentum to build on. Last year's election also saw historic levels of youth voter turnout and activism in the form of youth organizing, mobilizing and protesting. Even before the world heard Gorman's powerful words from the West Front of the Capitol, our youth were heeding her call: "But while democracy can be periodically delayed / it can never be permanently defeated / In this truth / in this faith we trust / For while we have our eyes on the future / history has its eyes on us."
We were all inspired as she helped to usher in a new administration that promises to build its policies on unity and shared democratic values. But in the midst of our hopes for the next four years, we can't lose sight of a glaring reality: We can't continue to defund civic institutions, civic education, and foundational civic skills and still expect to have a robust and resilient democracy supported by diverse engaged and empowered citizens.
There's been a promising call for more civic education funding and support in schools, but futurist Amanda Gorman reminds us that history has its eyes on us — and education isn't enough. She shows us that this is a moment to reframe civics as a mindset and an embodied, interdisciplinary literacy.
Real, lasting change comes from more than just civic knowledge, the kind of facts and figures and dates and names we ask students to learn in school. Change, the architecture of an imagined better world, happens when we help people learn how to translate civic knowledge and civic skills into a lasting civic disposition — the attitude that they can wake up each day and take an active part in the world around them.
Since the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol — and on our collective freedoms — many experts and citizens have been asking, "Is our democracy broken?" Some have moved to ideas of repair: "A new normal will help fix it."
But the futurist poet reminds us that our immediate lens is not broad enough for this moment. As Gorman declared at the inaugural: "Somehow, we've weathered and witnessed a nation that isn't broken, but simply unfinished."
Simply unfinished. That's the call. That's our charge. Healing and repair are things you do in the moment to make something as it was. But a futurist says "I will boldly imagine what can be."
If we think of our nation as unfinished rather than broken, and actively teach our next generation of citizens to imagine a finished nation, we embrace a growth mindset and open up a world of possibilities to collectively write the next chapter of the story.
Solomont is retiring this spring after seven years as dean of the Tisch College of Civic Life at Tufts University. He was ambassador to Spain and Andorra during the Obama administration.
A violent insurrection, fueled by hate and littered with the symbols of white supremacy, is more than a "wake-up call." It's a fire alarm.
Our democratic ideals, already fragile and inequitably realized, seemed impossibly distant in the past several weeks. The inauguration was a tonic, a sign that "democracy has prevailed" as President Biden eloquently put it, but it should not obscure the reality that the road before us will not be smooth.
As we examine the myriad causes and explore what's ahead, one response, among many others, must be a hard look at the state of civic education in this country. Congress can help lead this effort, starting with the passage of the Educating for Democracy Act.
We have not for many years — or perhaps ever — invested sufficiently in the civic health and education of our citizenry. The reasons are complex and varied: competing priorities, politicization and hyperpolarization, and the relative disinvestment in public education and higher education overall. But the fact is that over the course of nearly six decades, the prioritization of a few subjects (STEM and English language arts, especially) has led to a neglect of American history and civics. Where some gains have been made in high-quality civic education, they've been too often co-curricular, inequitably distributed and mostly available to white and otherwise privileged students.
Our expectations for what students should learn have been set far too low. It is one thing to teach that there are three branches of government and what each one does. It is more ambitious to expect every young American to know how to select good information, to reason with people who may disagree about complex problems, to influence a range of institutions effectively — and to uphold the core values of our republic.
But that is what our constitutional democracy demands.
Far too many students have not been empowered to meet even our currently low expectations. For the past 20 years, scores have remained flat on the only reliable national measure of student attainment in civics and history, the National Assessments of Educational Progress. Barely a quarter of students are able to demonstrate a basic proficiency in these subjects, which are so critical to our nation's future.
Raising all students well above proficiency will require significantly more time in the classroom, better prepared teachers and improved curricula. But they can't do it alone. Attaining these goals will require money.
The federal government now annually invests roughly $54 for every student on STEM education. By contrast, the investment in American history and civics is a paltry 5 cents. But the answer is not less funding for STEM or other subjects. The answer is a well-resourced public education system that educates for democracy.
One important first would be legislation given a high priority in Congress and signed soon by President Biden. The Educating for Democracy Act enjoys bipartisan support and was filed in the last Congress by a pair of prominent House members, Democrat Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut and Republican Tom Cole of Oklahoma, along with a pair of prominent senators, Democrat Chris Coons of Delaware and Republican John Cornyn of Texas. The bill calls for a federal investment of approximately 35 percent of the current federal investment in STEM education.
Effective, innovative, student-centered instruction in American history and civics is essential to the future of our democracy. It can help bridge divides, increase equity, and promote media literacy in a vastly changed information landscape. And more and more, it is also essential to our national security.
The legislation does not mandate a national curriculum or a particular instructional approach. Those decisions are quite properly left to states and local school districts. They would receive funding to strengthen and improve their approach to civic and history education. Nonprofit organizations would compete to develop improved curricula, instructional models and other programs. Colleges and universities would get help to prepare future elementary and secondary school teachers.
A generation ago, Americans awoke to the reality that the Soviet Union had succeeded in launching a satellite into space — the oft-recalled "Sputnik moment" when, among other things, America committed itself to teaching and leading in science and engineering. Today, as we continue to struggle with the assault on the Capitol, and reckon with the reality that the threat comes from within our own borders, perhaps we are on the verge of the next such awakening.
And perhaps this time, America will commit itself to teaching history and civics. Enacting the Educating for Democracy Act would give our teachers, students and communities the tools we need to begin to do just that.
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