The Need for Civics in the Middle

Frank F Islam

In 2023, the polar ice caps are melting. The political polarization in the U.S. is hardening.

That’s proof that climate change is not just limited to the environment. The political, social and emotional climate in our nation is changing as well.

Much of the environmental climate change can be attributed to things that we humans are doing. In contrast, much of the political, social and emotional climate change can be attributed to what we humans are not doing.

We are failing to develop the knowledge, skills, and dispositions necessary for good citizenship. There has been a downward trajectory in this regard during the 21st century. We and many others have been calling attention to this decline for some time.

Richard Haass, President of the nonpartisan Council on Foreign Relations, has written a new bookThe Bill of Obligations: The Ten Habits of Good Citizens, which brings this citizenship dilemma front and center at the outset of 2023. We discuss three of the obligations Haas identifies: be informedget involved, and stay open to compromise in our blog preceding this one.

In this blog we address Haass’ obligation to Support the Teaching of Civics. This is a critical obligation that provides the foundation for a vital and vibrant democracy.

Haass stresses the pivotal importance of the obligation in his chapter on teaching civics, stating, “What worries me and what in no small part gave rise to this book is that we are failing to fulfill the obligation to pass down the essentials of what it means to be an American and a citizen of the United States.” Haass’ assessment is absolutely correct.

Because of the emphasis on STEM (Science, Technology, English and Math) since the beginning of this 21st century, there has been a decreased emphasis on civics education in grades K-12. This was first called to the public’s attention in the CIRCLE publication, The Civic Mission of Schools. CIRCLE, in conjunction with other partners, followed this 2003 publication with a 2011 report, Guardian of Democracy: The Civic Mission of Schools.

This second report was “an urgent call to action to restore the historic civic mission of schools.” The need for restoring the civic mission of schools remains urgent today. A poll released by iCivics and More Perfect in late October 2022 revealed that nearly 80 percent of likely voters of all political persuasions felt that civic education is important, with almost 70% of those voters agreeing that civic education is more important now than it was five years ago.

Haass’ prescription to address the civics education deficit is to focus on the high school and college levels. He writes, “A basic idea is that no one should be able to graduate from high school or college or university without a meaningful exposure to civics.” Later, he notes, “This could and should be fixed by simply introducing a required civics course for all students in high schools and universities.”

We agree with the need for civic education in the high school and college years. But if that is the first meaningful exposure to civics, it will be too little and too late.

In our blog posted in 2018, we observed “our American democracy is in decline” and a solution to address that decline is the introduction of a comprehensive civic education intervention beginning in middle school.

As we note in that blog:

The provision of civic learning and engagement opportunities is important at all points along the educational continuum from middle school through high school to college. For three primary reasons, however, middle school is the essential place to begin the process of nurturing the nation’s future citizens.

First, educational research suggests that formation of a positive orientation toward an area early in a student’s career increases the potential for sustained interest and participation. In spite of this, a 1999 educational article reports, “….the middle school years are an important time in the development of civic roles and responsibilities. Yet, there is a general lack of institutionalized civic education aimed at promoting democratic citizenship during middle school years.”

Second, middle school represents a critical window in time in which to shape and engage responsible lifelong citizens. Middle school students have the cognitive ability to grasp complex concepts, develop problem-solving and critical thinking skills, and to become peer and civic engagement leaders.

Third, middle school is where the civic learning gap is currently the largest and most problematic. This is so because the No Child Left Behind legislation and the Common Core Standards, with the emphasis placed on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics), have left civics and citizenship far behind — for the most part, not in the curricula at all.

The consequence of the absence of middle school civics can be seen in results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), which has been testing students’ performance nationally in a variety of areas since 1998. The 2014 results for 8th graders showed that a mere 23% of those students were at or above “proficient” in civics as compared to 31% in 1998. In 2015, the NAEP tests showed 34% of the students scored at or above proficient in science and 33% in mathematics.

The COVID pandemic, which kept students out of classrooms, and other factors had a drastic negative effect on math scores, with 8th grade students falling from 34% at or above proficient in 2019 to 26% in 2022. The NAEP civics scores for 2022 have not been released as of this posting. Given past performances in civics, however, it is likely there will be a precipitous decline in this area as well.

This is discouraging. But there have been encouraging developments in the civics arena over the past decade. There are many resources that can be drawn upon for those involved with middle schools in order to develop and implement robust civics offerings.

In terms of the focus of civic education, in 2018 the National Council for Social Studies (NCSS) put out a position statement on civic education, and the Brown Center for Education Policy provided recommendations for a high quality civic education.

The NCSS position statement declares:

At its core, civic education should provide students with the ability to take informed action to address problems relevant to life in a democratic republic. It should target the knowledge,skills and dispositions to ensure that young people are truly capable of becoming active and engaged participants in civic life.

The Brown Center for Education Policy at the Brookings Institution puts forward the following three components and 10 proven practices:

Components

1. Civic knowledge: an understanding of government structure, government processes,and relevant social studies knowledge and concepts

2. Civic skills: abilities that enable students to participate in a democracy as responsible citizens

3. Civic dispositions: attitudes important in a democracy such as a sense of civic duty and concern for the welfare of others

Proven Practices

1. Classroom instruction in civics, government, history, law, economics and geography

2. Discussion of current events

3. Service learning

4. Extracurricular activities

5. Student participation in school governance

6. Simulations of democratic processes and procedures

7. News media literacy

8. Action civics

9. Social-emotional learning (SEL)

10. School climate reform

In terms of the content for middle school civic education, The Citizen U® TPS Civics Resource Center, operated through a grant from the Library of Congress’ Teaching with Primary Sources (TPS) Program, provides a wide variety of resources. The Center features a Lesson Library, Civics Interactives, and the Our American Voice ® Civics Curriculum.

The Lesson Library contains more than 200 inquiry-based lessons developed by TPS consortium partners and teachers from across the country. Over 100 of these lessons, covering a range of disciplines — including math, science, and English language arts — are appropriate for middle school.

The Civics Interactives section highlights offerings that organizations have developed using grants from the Library of Congress TPS program. The interactives promote student learning about Congress and civic participation using online primary resources. The middle school programs include: Case Maker, which features 20 premade civic challenges; DBQuest, which introduces students to major questions in civics and history; and Journalism in Action, which covers 10 key moments in U.S. history through a journalist’s lens.

The Our American Voice ® Civics Curriculum (OAV) is a comprehensive and integrated program in which students learn four core principles of democracy. It addresses 10 topics and has a basic, intermediate, and advanced lesson for each topic, which allows for customization of the curriculum.

There could be significant resources introduced in the future to supplement the civics resources that are already available. In June of 2022, the Civics Secures Democracy Act, which would provide a $1 billion investment to expand civic education across K-12 and higher education, was reintroduced in the U.S. Senate. What will happen to this Act, given the results of the 2022 midterm elections, is hard to determine.

What is easy to determine is the fate of our democracy if civics education is not revitalized. Richard Haass, in concluding his chapter on the obligation to support the teaching of civics, opines:

But the time is right to have a debate over making civics required and to determine what might constitute a curriculum that would be both useful and broadly acceptable. It is difficult to imagine a more urgent and critical need if American democracy is to survive.

And, as we indicated in the title and throughout this blog, civics in the middle should be a pivotal element and the starting point for addressing that “urgent and critical need.”


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