THE MASSACHUSETTS LEGISLATURE is considering a bill (S. 2306) to enhance civic education. We are excited about its prospects and welcome the debate that the bill has provoked, including the critical comments of Milford High School principal Joshua Otlin, who is an experienced and dedicated civic educator. The bill is an opportunity for all citizens to consider what our young people should learn about democracy and civic life and what role the state should play.
Otlin opposes state mandates. In his March 9 op-ed, he says that we reached “predetermined conclusion[s] by ignoring contradictions and shortcomings in … logic and data,” which we “insist on interpreting … in a manner that defies reason.” We would like to respond in order to clarify our interpretation of the research and its relevance to S. 2306.
Otlin notes that our paper entitled “The Republic Is Still at Risk—and Civics is Part of the Solution” has been cited in support of S. 2306–for example, by Alan Solomont and Arielle Jennings, in “Training Citizens, One Student at a Time.” He focuses on the section of our paper about Florida’s recent law, whose centerpiece is a mandatory course with a high-stakes test. But we also discuss many other states’ policies in our paper, and the Massachusetts bill is not modeled on Florida’s law.
- 2306 includes no test. Instead, it requires that American history and civics education shall be taught as required subjects in all public schools. It also directs the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education to “adopt a policy that requires every student in the Massachusetts public school system have the opportunity to participate in no less than 2 student-led civics projects.”
- 2306 does include state requirements, and those always deserve debate. But we disagree with Otlin that requiring schools to teach certain subjects is reminiscent of “communist economies.” In 1642, the Massachusetts Bay Colony required “the Select men of every town” to ensure that their “children & apprentices” obtain “so much learning as may enable them perfectly to read the English tongue, & knowledge of the Capital Lawes”–which was a form of civic education. The colony enacted a “penaltie of twentie shillings” for each failure to accomplish that educational outcome. For the next 375 years, the Commonwealth has always imposed extensive educational requirements, including courses that must be taught in all public schools. Massachusetts has, however, been unusual in not requiring the teaching of civics as part of the school curriculum, as 42 other states do. S. 2306 would remedy that omission.
Although the Florida law is not strictly relevant to S. 2306, we would like to address Otlin’s question about the relationship between the quality [of] civics programs and socioeconomic status in Florida. He asks whether it was due to an “oversight” or an “attempt to exclude inconvenient truths” that we did not discuss that topic in our paper.
In fact, we have worked very closely with the Florida Partnership for Civic Learning to investigate differences in the quality of civics and the impact of economic and racial or ethnic disparities on students’ civic outcomes. One advantage of the Florida law is a raft of data that allows precise and critical investigation of such disparities. Socioeconomic advantage does relate to civics test scores in Florida’s diverse communities. That is problematic and should certainly be considered if Massachusetts ever contemplates a high-stakes test in civics.
But the positive side of the law should also be considered. Since 2010, when Florida enacted the Sandra Day O’Connor Civic Education Act, the correlations between socioeconomic advantage and civics test scores have diminished each year as educators have found more effective ways to teach civics to children of all backgrounds and as more attention has been focused on disparities. The proportion of Florida’s seventh graders who pass the test has risen by 15 percent while the proportion who score in the lowest category has fallen by 31 percent.
In Massachusetts, most students are already getting civics but in an unequal way because there is no state policy. S. 2306 would create a new Civics Project Fund and public service options for interested Massachusetts students that can bring new resources to underserved communities.
We share Otlin’s concern about disparities and believe that a state law will even the playing field by creating consistent expectations, systems, and resources to support educators who teach civics in all types of communities, regardless of their existing inclinations and resources to teach civics. All students deserve opportunities to learn civics, and our Commonwealth needs a new generation of civically skilled and engaged young people.
Kei Kawashima Ginsberg, director of CIRCLE, and Peter Levine, associate dean, both work in the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life, Tufts University.