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Advocates push for equitable civics education

Study: Teachers have the will, but little time to increase civics teaching

Morgan C. Mullings
Staff reporter covering state and local politics. Report for America Corps Member. VIEW BIO

A group of educators is pushing to prepare the next generation of voters with an update to civics education in grade school. Though the practice isn’t widespread, there is evidence that required civic education curriculums have had positive effects in states like Florida and Illinois.

The members of the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) at Tufts University’s Tisch College presented a study Jan. 22, demonstrating the level of support teachers need to increase civics education in schools and the benefits it has on Massachusetts students.

Massachusetts schools implemented new civics instruction through the 2018 History and Social Science Framework law mandating student-let civics projects in schools and establishing a trust fund to support civics learning around the state. The result was an equitable distribution of funding and instruction, researchers found.

“Not only did the new policies prioritize equity — for example, the civics Trust Fund prioritizes funding for underserved districts — our baseline findings also show that teacher familiarity with civics policies and their self-reported competency and applying practice standards, did not vary by demographic makeup of districts student population,” said Ariel Tichnor-Wagner, researcher at Boston University, during CIRCLE’s presentation.

However, confidence in the 2018 History and Social Science (HSS) Framework instruction among teachers was concerning. The required civics project, which is student-led, is meant to help students consider differing points of view and make arguments about the laws and democratic processes of their local and national government. Teachers have had a hard time fitting such an immersive project into a well-established curriculum.

“Overall, we found that teachers do value the types of civic learning that the new policies espouse and have at least heard of the new framework,” Tichnor-Wagner said. “However, a much smaller proportion know how the new framework directly applies to their own instruction, and this is far more pronounced for elementary educators as compared to middle and high school teachers.”

Another issue is that, though civics education has proven to be a positive learning experience, it’s not the most popular subject. Noorya Hayat, senior researcher at CIRCLE, brought up the increasing popularity of STEM courses like coding and engineering, especially in elementary schools. Prioritizing civics also becomes a problem when it isn’t evaluated on standardized tests.

“Elementary school teachers are not reporting having a lot of time to teach social studies,” Tichnor-Wagner said. “Only 8% reported that they teach social studies at least four hours a week and 28% reported that they don’t have time to teach social studies at all, and instead it is integrated into English language arts.”

CIRCLE found that more professional development and resources in this area can help teachers fulfill the requirement. Teachers with more support were willingly integrating a civics curriculum into their other classes, facilitating discussions on controversial issues and tying current events into the projects.

“[In one class] there was a big discussion about Black Lives Matter protests, and students in upper elementary then had a project to look at the timeline of how racism in the United States … connects to current events that were happening in their community,” said Hayat.

The mission to support teachers in this endeavor is obviously hindered currently by the pandemic’s effect on in-person learning. Elementary teachers in the study felt especially unprepared to integrate civics in the classroom due to lack of time and resources.

CIRCLE hopes to increase awareness of the 2018 HSS Framework and provide teachers with the time to incorporate civics learning in their classes. The group’s recommendations, which can be found at Circle.Tufts.edu, include offering more professional development for teachers and investing in elementary school educators, who need the most help.

civics, Education

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