A Renewed Effort to Revitalize the Teaching of Civic Engagement in Our Schools

January 26, 2017

By Bill Honig, State Board of Education, Instructional Quality Commission Member


This article originally appeared in Building Better Schools website on 1/2/2017

In response to the question from a woman after the Constitutional Convention asked of Ben  Franklin, “Well Doctor what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?” Franklin replied,  “A republic, if you can keep it.”

The survival of our democracy has always depended on a broad acceptance of democratic ideals and practices. That attachment is declining precipitously in Western democracies. In the United States a survey showed that 75% of those born in 1930 agreed that it was essential to live in a democracy. That number dropped to a shocking 30% for those born in 1980.  On a number of measures of democratic allegiance, Western democracies have fallen to a level similar to Venezuela and Poland before they succumbed to authoritarianism.

These findings are reported in a scary article in the New York Times by Amanda Taub entitled “How Stable Are Democracies? ‘The Warning Signs are Flashing Red'” which reviews the research of Yascha Mounk and Roberto Stefan Foa showing a marked decline in democratic attachments especially among millennials.

Taub, Mounk and Foa use three dimensions to measure democratic attachment.

  • How important do citizens think it is for the country to remain democratic.
  • Public openness to non-democratic forms of government such as military rule.
  • Whether “antisystem parties and movements” — political parties and other major players whose core message is that the current system is illegitimate — were gaining support.

All these measures have declined substantially in our country.

Our founders were well aware that democracies were fragile and that each new generation needs to become attached to democratic ideals and behaviors. Public schools were created as one of the main methods of instilling  democratic engagement. That crucial mission has been shortchanged in the recent singular emphasis on job preparation.

Fortunately, there has been a growing effort in the country to re-establish the educational goal of teaching our children the essence of democratic ideas and practices. For example a California task force issued a report last year Revitalizing K-12 Civic Learning in California; a Blueprint for Action. Other states have also raised the priority of civic learning.

California has also just adopted a History-Social Science framework which incorporates much of what the California task force recommended.

California’s New History-Social Science/Civics framework

The California State Board of Education recently adopted the K-12 framework for History-Social Science. This document should provide a useful tool for the revitalization of the teaching of history, civics, geography, and economics in California’s schools.

During the past decade especially at the elementary grades history-social science, civics has been neglected in many districts. As the country’s founders and the original advocates for public education were well aware, the survival of our democracy depends in large part on developing attachment to our democratic ideals and practices as well as an historical perspective in each new generation. Since for several years we as country and state have fallen short of our obligations to pass on these beliefs and supporting knowledge, the framework comes at a crucial time.

The framework contains several major shifts from previous documents. The document:

  • Envisions a much more active classroom. Instruction in each grade poses engaging questions to encourage deeper learning for students.
  • Places much greater emphasis on understanding our democracy and civic engagement throughout the grade levels—the knowledge of the basic principles of our democratic ideals, the struggles to honor those beliefs, the effort to incorporate democratic habits of discussion and debate into the classroom and school, and the involvement of students in projects such as Model UN and learning opportunities for civic participation.
  • Reflects the growing diversity of California’s students and the effort in this country to broaden the social, economic, and political inclusion all Americans.
  • Follows our California History-Social Science standards and is organized chronologically to cover US and California history, world history, and incorporates civic, economic, geographic, and environmental ideas and history in each grade.
  • Stresses the analytic skills of how to examine and evaluate primary and secondary sources, distinguish fact from fiction, conduct credible discussions, write essays, or undertake projects on pertinent topics, and perceive the historical connection to current events.
  • Stresses engagement of students through stories and exciting narrative, historical literature and biography, and engaging activities.

The framework is not a curriculum but is meant as specifications for courses of study for teachers, districts, parents and publishers. Instructional materials based on the framework will be reviewed this summer and available next fall. The hope is that these initiatives will support the effort to re-emphasize the teaching of history and civics and engage our students in these vital disciplines.

Revitalizing Civics Teaching

A couple of recent articles on civic engagement.

Arthur Cummins describes the woeful state of civic education.

Also see the article in Education Week by Web Hutchins, Civics in the Common Core.