Task force urges remake of civics education

Source: California Task Force on K-12 Civic Learning's "Revitalizing K–12 Civic Learning in California: A Blueprint for Action”

Jesus Santana, a student at Burton Technology Academy Charter High School in Los Angeles, gives his perspective on civics at the Civic Learning California Summit on February 2013.

A state task force is calling for a revival in civics education, transforming it from “an afterthought” – an undervalued social studies class – to a core element of study and community engagement.

The California Task Force on K-12 Civic Learning, commissioned by State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson and California Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, issued its final report this week. It urges a new approach to civic learning, which it defines as “cultivating the qualities that will enable all students to mature and participate in our democracy.”  The 23-member task force was co-chaired by David Gordon, Sacramento County superintendent of schools, and Judith McConnell, administrative presiding justice of California’s 4th District Court of Appeal in San Diego.

The task force’s recommendations include:

  • Rewriting the state’s 15-year-old history and social studies standards to incorporate civic learning in every grade;
  • Involving students in school governance and decision-making to create a school culture that “embodies democratic values and principles;”
  • Creating a “best-practices clearinghouse” and training opportunities for teachers;
  • Reaching out to government, businesses, the courts and nonprofit organizations to create projects and internships for students involving government and community issues that interest them.

The report cites both an imperative for sweeping action and opportunities for it.

“Our need for civic learning may be greater than ever in this time of political polarization at the national level, ongoing immigration, deep distrust in political institutions and turmoil in the news industry,” the report says. At the same time, “California’s current civics classes emphasize memorization over participatory skills,” and relies on a 12th-grade government course that comes too late for students already disengaged from school, the report said.

“It’s different for this generation of students, for the landscape of teaching and learning has changed so much,” said Sacramento County Superintendent of Schools David Gordon. “Things that used to be in the curriculum have been driven out.”

According to the report, only 13 percent of high school seniors showed a solid understanding of U.S. history and less than half viewed active involvement in state and local issues as their responsibility.

Student disengagement is partly the product of years of tighter budgets, added academic requirements and a shift in focus under test-driven accountability. “It’s different for this generation of students, for the landscape of teaching and learning has changed so much,” Gordon said. “Things that used to be in the curriculum have been driven out.”

But the timing for change may be right, the report says, with the adoption of broader criteria for measuring student learning under the state’s new school financing system and the adoption of the Common Core State Standards.

Effective practices of civic learning, such as discussions of current events relating to students’ lives and Common Core’s English language arts standards, have similar goals. “They both call for careful reading of informational texts, critical thinking, analysis skills, digital media literacy and developing and communicating arguments based on evidence,” the report says. “Both also emphasize the application of knowledge and skills in real-life settings.”

Districts should incorporate ethics, history, law and financial literacy in their curriculums and include the texts of the Bill of Rights and the U.S. Constitution in lesson plans, the report says. They also can encourage internships and courses that get students out into the community, the report says.

Make civic learning part of API

The state is moving away from multiple-choice standardized tests to more complex assessments that measure problem-solving and critical thinking. It’s also changing the Academic Progress Index, the main measure for  student and school achievement, to include career and college readiness factors. The task force recommends creating measurements to gauge, for example, whether students understand democratic processes, can analyze and debate issues and are able to critically evaluate campaign ads. A “civics matrix test” wouldn’t be given annually to every student but data from it should be included in a school’s and district’s API, it said.

The report states civic learning also can be “a powerful tool” for meeting several priority areas of the Local Control and Accountability Plan, or LCAP. The LCAP is the document for spending and academic priorities that the Legislature required districts to create in return for more local control.

Respectful dialogue about controversial issues – one of civic learning’s best practices – is key to improving school climate, the report said. Extracurricular activities like the YMCA Model Legislature and projects that promote  activism can enhance student engagement (another priority in the LCAP) and improve student achievement, it said.

The Legislature may act on one of the task force’s recommendations this year. Senate Bill 897 would require the state commission that is revising the history and social studies standards to integrate civic knowledge and skills into all grade levels and include voter education information in the American government curriculum in high school. The bill, sponsored by Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, passed the Senate and is awaiting final action in the Assembly.

Brawley High School teacher Jose Flores received the 2013 Civic Learning Award of Distinction from Appellate Court Judge Judith McConnell, who chaired the Task Force on K-12 Civic Learning.

Credit: Jonathan Archer, Brawley Union High School

Brawley High School teacher Jose Flores received the 2013 Civic Learning Award of Distinction from Appellate Court Judge Judith McConnell, who chaired the Task Force on K-12 Civic Learning.

Because the era of top-down mandates from the state is over, Gordon said the task force is hoping there will be grassroots organizing to promote civic learning and build ties to the community. As an example, this fall Action Civics, funded by the S.D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation,*  will build partnerships between seven middle and high schools in Sacramento and state and local government agencies, the courts and  non-profit organizations.

Success stories are interspersed throughout the task force report. One is Brawley High in the Imperial Valley, where 71 percent of students are from low-income families. In his bilingual civics and U.S. history classes, open to all students, teacher Jose Flores set up mock elections using voter information booklets modified for school and local issues. Students went on field trips to city council meetings, and judges were invited to speak to his classes. Participation in civics-related clubs at the school quintupled.

Changing demographics in California schools, with more English learners and low-income students, make organizing efforts critical, Gordon said. “The quality of civic education is maldistributed. Mostly upper- and middle-class schools have the facilities for History Day and moot court,” he said. “Unless we build efforts in the community, needier schools are going to get cut out of this.”

*Correction: An earlier version misidentified the name of the funder.

Filed under: Common Core, Community Partnerships, Deeper Learning, Local Control Funding Formula, State Education Policy

Tags: , , , , , , ,


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Comment Policy

EdSource encourages a robust debate on education issues and welcomes comments from our readers.

  • To preserve a civil dialogue, writers should avoid personal, gratuitous attacks and invective.
  • Comments should be relevant to the subject of the article responded to.
  • EdSource retains the right not to publish inappropriate and offensive comments.
  • EdSource encourages commenters to use their real names. Commenters who do decide to use a pseudonym should use it consistently.
  • Please limit comments to 250 words to prevent comment clutter; if you intend to say more please link out to a place that contains your full comment.
  • Comments with more than one link automatically enter moderation. Comments from new commenters are automatically moderated.
  • Repeated violation of this comment policy will lead to a warning. Continued violations will lead to a ban.

10 Responses to “Task force urges remake of civics education”

EdSource does not track who "likes or dislikes" a comment. We only track the number of likes and dislikes.

  1. Gary Ravani on Aug 9, 2014 at 4:09 pm08/9/2014 4:09 pm

    • 000

    Not exactly the same as Civics, but something to think about:

    “A large majority of the students showed that they had virtually no knowledge of elementary aspects of American history. They could not identify such names as Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson or Theodore Roosevelt.”
    NY Times page 1 article. Right next to the major headline of the day: “Patton Attacks East of El Guettar.” April 4, 1943. And these were college students.

    The Committee of Ten reported that history “has never taken serious hold” on students graduating from secondary school. 1892.

    “History is bunk,” said Henry Ford, something only an American could get away with.

    (Thanks to the late Gerald Bracey)

    We certainly do need to revitalize Civics Education along with History and the other social sciences. Let us proceed without panic and without the tendency to try and use soul crushing test based “accountability” to do it.

  2. Rob Manwaring on Aug 8, 2014 at 12:01 pm08/8/2014 12:01 pm

    • 000

    While the current generation of history and social science tests are far from perfect, it seems a shame that the state has eliminated those tests, thus eliminating the role that history and social science play in the state’s accountability system. If accountability is a signal to the school system about what the state values, it appears that the the state is sending the signal that it does not care about history and social sciences. Basically, these history social science assessments were ended so the funding supporting those assessments could be used to pay for the new math and English tests (Smarter Balanced). Smarter Balanced will be worth the extra costs because those test will start to fix many of the problems that educators have had with the old fill in the bubble tests. But, was the elimination of history and social science tests the right place to find those extra funds.
    Even if SB 897 passes, the current version does not have a timeline by which the standards would be revised. In the best case of starting that process soon, it could be 5 or more years before new standards are written, frameworks developed and new assessments developed aligned with those standards. It seems like that is a long time for the state to signal to the school system that it does not value history and social sciences.


    • Floyd Thursby 1941 on Aug 8, 2014 at 2:15 pm08/8/2014 2:15 pm

      • 000

      I have been disappointed so far with the teaching of U.S. History to my kids. My daughter 2 years ago only got to the end of World War I and my son barely got through the Civil War, in 8th Grade. They go too deep into obscure things and then leave out everything recent. When I was in 8th grade, we went to the present or very close. Kids will be more interested in things which affect them directly. I’m not saying they don’t need to learn about the Revolution and Mexican War and Alamo and Native Americans and Civil War and Colonies. I just think the first semester should go through Reconstruction, about 1877, and the 2d semester to the present. Kids are less interested when it seems long ago, particularly immigrants who don’t feel they were a part of the early history.

      The last 75 years have been momentous. We overcame a depression, won World War II, had the Civil Rights Movement, the Antiwar movement, the Women’s Rights Movement, Gay Rights, the Cold War, Korea, Vietnam, Grenada, the Iran Contra Scandal, Watergate, landing on the moon, the JFK Assassination, Rock N Roll, the Chicago Disco Riots of 1978, 2 women tried to kill Gerald Ford, the Chicago 1968 Democratic Convention, the Internet.

      Kids will be more interested when you can ask people who are now alive about the events.

      Waiting until High School to learn about the 2 Roosevelts is way too late.

      • Jim Mordecai on Aug 9, 2014 at 12:20 am08/9/2014 12:20 am

        • 000

        I sense that the commitment to self-government is weak. Wouldn’t a strong commitment mean civics was about learning how to make local self-government work, learning what to do when local governance does not follow through on following the Brown Act Open government rules. Teaching civics as history seems dry instead of teaching civics as looking to the students of today seeing and working for the possibility of making our existing civic institutions in the future a more perfect government of the people, by the people and for the people.

  3. Fred Jones on Aug 8, 2014 at 11:56 am08/8/2014 11:56 am

    • 000

    Yet again, excellent reporting, John! You covered both the “meat” and message of this Task Force’s work succinctly and clearly. Unlike CTE and the arts, History-Social Studies is a core academic discipline, yet even these courses have fallen victim to the curricular narrowing of an unhealthy focus on high-stakes exams in only two subject-matter (ELA/Math). Perhaps with new assessments and school performance measurements coming online in California over the next couple of years students will be exposed to broader and more enriching curricula and programs … our economy and our fragile Republic hang in the balance!

  4. Tressy Capps on Aug 8, 2014 at 11:48 am08/8/2014 11:48 am

    • 000

    This must be done with absolutely NO bias. Our kids need to be taught to appreciate their AMERICAN roots. One Nation under GOD……


    • el on Aug 8, 2014 at 1:45 pm08/8/2014 1:45 pm

      • 000

      The irony in this comment is so thick I can hardly stand it. :-)

      • Floyd Thursby 1941 on Aug 8, 2014 at 11:15 pm08/8/2014 11:15 pm

        • 000

        As an atheist with 5 kids in public school, may I request a change to 1 nation of many contributing nationalities, under nature and evolution, enabling us to decide how we want to do things based on what we think is best not a book written by people thousands of years ago? I thought part of our history was freedom from religion as well as freedom of religion, and Thomas Paine, a great intellectual hero of the revolutionary era, said patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel. I protested the Iraq invasion, does that make me less American than you?

      • Paul Muench on Aug 9, 2014 at 3:58 am08/9/2014 3:58 am

        • 000

        You can read the section of the report on California’s civic crisis where it calls out the decline in church attendance as an indicator of a decline in civic engagement. I don’t think they meant to say that schools will encourage church attendance, but it does align somewhat with the original comment here. Although I can’t tell for sure since the relevant detail is missing all around.

      • Paul Muench on Aug 9, 2014 at 4:28 am08/9/2014 4:28 am

        • 000

        The last sentence on page 20 of this report calls for greater civic participation of undocumented students. This gives the appearance of promoting a given position over a dedication to a greater understanding of our political processes. Which I think was at least part of the intent of the original post by Tressy. The authors of this report should clarify what this means as it seems it can easily be construed to contradict the report as a whole.

Template last modified: