By Jan Brennan
Can one semester of civics prepare metro Denver youth for an active and informed role in democracy and community life? If you are doubtful, the statistics should strengthen your skepticism. The National Assessment of Educational Progress reports that only 23% of American 8th grade students demonstrated civics proficiency in 2014[i]. A Crisis in Civic Education, a report just released by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni reports that a headline jarring 10% of college graduates answered that Judith Sheindlin – “Judge Judy” – is a member of the Supreme Court[ii].
Civic education has taken a back seat in recent years as schools have focused on literacy and STEM subjects with high stakes assessments. It’s time to reprioritize the traditional role of schools in preparing students for civic life as a co-equal purpose along with college and careers. Colorado ranks highly for the percentage of overall citizens who vote, but millennials are not as politically and civically active.[iii] The roots of this disengagement lie in part with our educational environment. We know from general social studies assessments that 44.6% of DPS 4th graders and 52.4% of DPS 7th graders have limited command of required social studies material[iv].
There are, however, many encouraging civics activities happening within metro area schools. Drawing from best practices for civic learning identified in The Civic Mission of Schools[v] and Guidebook: Six practices for effective civic learning[vi], here is a sampling of local civic projects and how they build on these six effective practices:
Best Practice 1 – Provide instruction in government, history, law, and democracy.
2003 Colorado legislation “Makes satisfactory completion of a course of federal and state civil government a requirement of high school graduation in the state.”[vii] DPS graduation requires 3 years of social studies coursework, including one year of U.S. History and one semester of civics.[viii]
Best Practice 2 – Incorporate discussion of current local, national, and international issues and events into the classroom.
One provocative high school unit American Indian Mascots: Hype, Insult, or Ignorance[ix] guides students in a discussion of this topical issue. Discussion of current issues not only brings history and civics to life for students and improves understanding of the content, but it encourages the respectful discourse and consideration of other viewpoints that is critical for productive civic dialogue.
Best Practice 3 – Design and implement programs that provide students with the opportunity to apply what they learn through performing community service linked to the formal curriculum.
Community-focused learning allows students to apply class content to real world issues while developing civics competencies. Several DPS schools use project-based learning as a core strategy. At High Tech Elementary, students develop projects that address community issues and integrate all content areas.[x] Excel Academy finds that hands-on project-based learning allows their students to be more successful. They note “Students become the problem-solvers and delve into units of study that are both realistic and based on the common body of knowledge expected of American citizens.[xi] Empowering students to use their learning to make a difference in their communities can be the trigger for life-long civic engagement.
Best Practice 4 – Offer extracurricular activities that involve young people in their communities.
Metro Denver students are aided in their civic development by community partners, including the Center for Civic Education and The Civic Canopy, who offer extracurricular experiences including We the People constitutional debates and the Project Citizen program. These programs also provide teacher professional development that expands inquiry-based learning approaches.
Best Practice 5 – Encourage student participation in school governance.
School student councils can be a starting point for youth to begin civic participation. DPS also has a Student Board of Education, giving youth a voice and role in meeting district and school goals.[xii]
Best Practice 6 – Encourage students’ participation in simulations of democratic processes.
Many DPS students will participate in mock elections this campaign season, providing the exposure to voting that encourages future participation. DPS students can also participate in mock congressional hearings and Model United Nations.
Becoming active informed citizens empowered to identify and address local issues is not something that simple happens to young people. It takes committed effort and experiential opportunities during their education to develop the civic knowledge, skills and dispositions that will allow them to effectively participate in our democracy. Numerous schools and teachers within metro Denver demonstrate innovative approaches to civic learning, providing a pathway for all metro Denver students to graduate prepared to contribute to our civic and community life.
Project Leader, National Center for Learning & Civic Engagement
Education Commission of the States