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Making Civic Education Reform Work: The Florida Partnership for Civic Learning

CIRCLE's research is informing policy and practice to improve civic education in the Sunshine State.

Florida has begun implementing new laws that aim to boost civics achievement and narrow achievements gaps. The Sandra Day O’Connor Civics Education Act requires a new course, a high-stakes 7th grade test, and several other accountability measures. We have previously analyzed the objectives of this important reform and the process that led to its enactment. CIRCLE’s own research and other literature finds that tests and course mandates, on their own, are not very effective at improving what students learn and know in civics. However, when combined with strong support for teachers and regular collection and discussion of assessment data, tests and required courses may be much more helpful.

To that end, the Florida Partnership for Civic Learning has been formed. It includes the Florida Joint Center for Citizenship (FJCC) at University of Central Florida and University of Florida, the Florida Department of Education (FLDOE), the Florida Association of Social Studies Supervisors (FASSS), and CIRCLE. The Partnership seeks to establish an iterative loop among research, policy, and practice.

So far, CIRCLE has helped the Partnership to build a model that predicts the 7th grade civics test scores at each Florida middle school. Findings from the model will inform policy and practice. For instance, it appears that civics test scores are strongly related to students’ literacy scores, which implies that strengthening literacy for social studies throughout grades k-7 may be essential for performance in 7th grade civics. The model also helps to identify positive outliers: schools whose 7th graders are performing substantially better on the civics test than would be predicted. Our Florida colleagues are beginning site visits and qualitative studies of some of these outliers to learn the reasons for their success.

We have also helped to design a short survey of student learning outcomes that are not captured on the state end-of-course exam, such as students’ interest in personally engaging in civic life and their knowledge of current events. This survey will inform efforts to ensure that the O’Connor Act boosts students engagement as well as knowledge of the political system.

Meanwhile, CIRCLE has been working with the Partnership, Filament Games LLC, and the Miami-Dade County Public Schools to test experimental software called “Discussion Maker.” Students use handheld electronic devices to organize classroom discussion of a contested political issue. Such discussions are included in the framework for the 7th grade civics course, and this experimental intervention is intended to enhance their outcomes.

Overall, the partnership represents a commitment by CIRCLE to collaborate with practitioners and policymakers. Together, we are using research to improve outcomes. We intend to share the general lessons with other states.