January 2018 Column: Consistent Hands-On Civic Education
Most of you reading this probably took a class during high school called “civics” or “government.”
For all our focus on the importance of “21st Century” subjects, particularly STEM education and getting our students more advanced in math – which as an engineer I agree is important – our public school system has let some core life skills fall away from required curricula in the last few decades, most notably civic education. Partly this has to do with our standardized testing system, which has led to social studies being pushed out of curricula because it is not tested. Partly is has changed with general values about what schools should focus on.
The fact remains that a successful American society in the 21st century does not require everyone to use calculus, or even algebra, on a regular basis. But a successful American society very much relies on everyone voting on a regular basis, and in recent years we have seen more and more examples of the polarization, misrepresentation, and gridlock that ensue when most citizens are not represented in elections because they don’t bother to vote. As long as extremists show up more regularly than others, our national politics will be frustrating. And yet voter turnout is the lowest among the newest generation of voters – mine – than it has ever been for young people in the United States. This is in part, I believe, because we no longer teach young people about government systems and how to be connected with them.
I am part of a bipartisan effort of MA legislators to bring back civics in our public schools. The 2016 Presidential election brought to light the lack of connection many people feel with our government systems and the lack of knowledge about how to be educated voters, distinguish fake news from real, and look at more than party designation. We are proposing that an understanding of the structure of federal, state, and local government systems and the ability to critically interpret news should be required parts of all MA students’ education. The MA Department of Elementary and Secondary Education is creating a new social studies framework that includes a civics class in 8th grade, and we are working with them and other legislators on a bill that builds further on this, and which I believe has a real chance of passage this session.
Our proposal would require the integration of civic education throughout elementary, middle, and high school, with teachers and administrators having flexibility to incorporate the relevant units wherever is appropriate in each school. The piece I am most excited about is that this proposal focuses on hands-on civic learning: the core of our proposal is that students would do at least one hands-on civics-related project or action (such as meeting with a legislator, researching a bill, or running a voter registration drive) during elementary school and another during high school.
This hands-on component is crucial, because it’s the best way to learn. Especially for politics and government, which by nature are participatory, learning about the three branches is not sufficient. To train our rising generations as effective and engaged citizens, we must teach students not only the theory but also the practice of how government systems work and particularly how they can be involved.
I’ve gotten to experience bits of this myself through the visits I’ve made to various classes in our elementary schools – speaking with students about my role in state government or about specific issues. I’ve noticed that some kids have a thorough understanding of government institutions, and others at the same grade level in the same district have none at all; it is very haphazard right now, varying with a school’s ability to go above and beyond or relying on the initiative of individual teachers. We need to make sure that civic education is present and consistent in every one of our schools, so that our country has the citizens it needs to address challenges, bridge divides, and achieve progress for all in the coming decades.
If you would like to be involved, either advocating for the state bill or working directly with our community – or if you want me to come speak with your class, which I’m hoping to do even more of – feel free to be in touch as always; as a reminder, my e-mail for this and other official matters is Solomon.Goldstein-Rose@mahouse.gov, and my website is SolomonGR.com.