AS THE COUNTRY engages in a heated debate over what civic education should look like, a new report by The Thomas B. Fordham Institute suggests that the nation should emulate the model we’ve developed here in the Commonwealth.
The State of State Standards for Civics and U.S. History in 2021 grades every state on their civics and history standards that guide teaching and learning in these content areas. Massachusetts earned a grade of A- (the highest grade earned by any state) and is listed as one of only five exemplar states.
Fordham graded state standards on such qualities as organization and clarity, how specific the standards are about the knowledge, skills, and civic dispositions (such as respect for others and others’ points of view) that should be taught, and required courses in civics and US history. The report noted that Massachusetts standards included “rigorous content and thoughtful sequencing that frequently complement clear prose and straightforward organization”.
The Fordham report corroborated the results of The State of Civic Education in Massachusetts report released by the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE), Tufts University’s Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, and the Boston University Wheelock College of Education and Human Development earlier this year. That report stated that “the Commonwealth’s comprehensive civic education reforms address strong practices for civics teaching and learning that attend to content, inquiry, and classroom climate; address the experiences, interests, and needs of students from diverse backgrounds; and provide resources to facilitate implementation.”
Both the positive analysis and exemplary grade are well-earned. They are the result of a mighty effort from the Legislature, DESE, educators, and concerned citizens to prioritize civic education.
For years, civics education was merely an afterthought in many classrooms. But in 2018, DESE released new state standards for history and social studies that emphasized teaching civics. Just months later, to provide support for the new standards, lawmakers passed An Act to Promote and Enhance Civic Engagement, which, along with new state and private funding to support the law’s implementation, finally placed civics at center stage in the state.
Under the new state standards, all eighth-grade students now take a full-year civics course. Under the state civics law, all eighth-grade students and most high school students participate in non-partisan student-led civics projects designed to give them an opportunity to try out civic life themselves. Students also participate in a range of other learning, including a voter registration challenge designed to engage youth in voting.
Over the past year, the COVID crisis dramatically illustrated to adults and students alike that we are all connected, that our shared commitment to one another through our civic life determines the health of all of us. The hard lessons of the last year have played out in schools as well, but through it all students have learned that they can play a positive role in determining our shared civic health.
Just one example: In April, over 500 students, teachers, and members of the public attended events during the first annual Civic Learning Week hosted by the Massachusetts Civic Learning Coalition. This celebration of civic learning, civic engagement, and civic leadership featured over 45 free virtual events, led by more than 35 organizations. Over 30 K-16 students took the lead as speakers, presenters, and organizers.
Yet, there is still work to be done.
While Civic Learning Week was a success, what became clear through panel discussions with civic leaders, state legislators, educators, and students was the need for broader awareness of and support for civic learning. It was also evident that we need to continue to empower students to share their experiences in civic learning as emerging civic leaders in Massachusetts and our greater democratic republic.
It is also clear that we need continued financial investment in civic education, both by the state and the private sector.
In June, DESE awarded nearly $1 million in grant funding to school districts for professional development and other support for educators in civics. Over three quarters of the grants allocated went to schools that have more than 40 percent disadvantaged students. While this is an important achievement, DESE received 59 grant applications from school districts across the state, totalling more than $1.9 million — and the agency was only able to fund 25 of them despite allocating additional funding to respond to the high demand.
As the Massachusetts Civic Learning Coalition – a non-partisan coalition of nonprofits, educators, research institutions, universities, and other partners–we believe the health of our democratic republic requires our investment in educating youth about our system of government and their critical role as active participants and providing opportunities to actively learn through projects and experience. We envision a thriving American democracy supported by informed and civically engaged young people who feel personally connected, inspired, and empowered to participate in civic life.
As a Commonwealth we have made incredible progress toward that goal and the rest of the country is taking notice. Now is the time to make our grade an A+.
Natacha Scott is the director of educator engagement for the Cambridge-based nonprofit iCivics.org. She worked with the Boston Public Schools for 14 years, beginning her journey as a third grade teacher at the Josiah Quincy Elementary School.