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CIRCLE Supports Strong Civics for All During Civic Learning Week

Our experts presented research and shared insights from our work during this weeklong event focused on strengthening civic education in the United States.

Young people need and deserve high-quality, comprehensive civic learning opportunities in and out of the classroom. Unfortunately for far too many youth, this kind of civic education remains unavailable or unevenly accessible—especially to young people in rural areas, youth of color, and others from marginalized or otherwise underserved communities.

Many educators, leaders, institutions, and communities around the country are working to change that. This month, from March 6-10, CIRCLE was proud to partner with many of those organizations for the first national Civic Learning Week, hosted by iCivics, which focused on making civics a nationwide priority.

Civic Learning Week featured more than 100 virtual and in-person events, including an opening forum at the National Archives in Washington, D.C., and a conversation with U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor.

CIRCLE experts delivered three presentations as part of the national Civic Learning Week, Rhode Island Civic Learning Week, and Massachusetts Civic Learning Week that highlighted different aspects of our work to ensure that all youth have access to the kind of civic education that will help them grow into informed and engaged voters and leaders.

The Role of K-12 Schools in Growing Voters

While valuable civic learning can and should happen outside of the classroom, K-12 schools have a critical role to play as an institution that reaches nearly all young people and that has a mandate to prepare them for civic life. That should include effective and equitable civic education across the curriculum, but also a democratic school climate that helps young people build and wield their voices.

CIRCLE elections coordinator Ruby Belle Booth and our research fellow Grace Northern presented to educators our work on engaging students for an informed democracy. They shared the multiple dimensions in which K-12 schools must work to grow voters: increasing equitable access and exposure to civic learning opportunities, creating support systems to ensure all youth can take advantage of those opportunities, and fostering a school culture in which all young people can feel heard and valued.

They shared major findings from our CIRCLE Growing Voters report as well as tools to advance educators’ work in each of these dimensions. That included resources from the Teaching for Democracy Alliance and Illinois Civics Hub that can support educators in incorporating best practices like informed action and service learning, current and controversial issue discussion, and increased student voice in school decision-making.

Learn more about CIRCLE’s research on how K-12 schools can grow voters.

The State of Civic Education in Rhode Island

In recent years, several states have passed new laws or established standards to strengthen K-12 civic education. The success of these efforts often depends on whether they’re implemented thoughtfully and supported with the adequate time, attention, and resources that educators need to meet new guidelines or requirements.

CIRCLE has frequently partnered with states to study the impact and implementation of new civic policies; one such partnership resulted in a comprehensive report on the state of civic education in Rhode Island. That report, led by our senior researcher Kelly Siegel-Stechler, has made its way to the state legislature for consideration, and it was the basis of her presentation as part of the keynote address for Rhode Island Civic Learning Week.

As Siegel-Stechler shares in the report and presentation, students want civic education courses and opportunities and most teachers feel ready and willing to provide them. When students do take civics courses, they report higher confidence explaining civics concepts. But educators also report a lack of standalone civics courses, and many believe that civics is not a priority for their district.

Critically, on nearly all measures of access to a quality civic education and civic readiness, students in low-socioeconomic status districts, students whose parents don’t have a college degree, and non-white students were less likely to report positive opportunities and outcomes.

Read the full report on civics in Rhode Island, which contains findings and lessons applicable to other states that are working to improve civic education.

Supporting Civics with the Investigating History Curriculum

As part of the Massachusetts Civic Learning Week, CIRCLE senior researcher Kelly Siegel-Stechler also participated in a panel about the Investigating History curriculum. Alongside leaders from the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and educators from across the state, she explored how this new curriculum can strengthen history and civics education in Massachusetts, which also passed legislation in recent years to strengthen K-12 civics.

The Investigating History curriculum is based on four key principles: Historical Inquiry and Investigation, Historical Empathy and Human Connections, Civic Engagement and Current World Relevance, and Culturally Affirming Pedagogies. CIRCLE’s work, including our director’s leadership in the Educating for American Democracy Roadmap has consistently affirmed the importance of civics and history education that is rigorous, culturally relevant, and meets students with diverse identities and experiences where they are.

As in Rhode Island, CIRCLE has also worked hand in hand with Massachusetts teachers and leaders to understand the landscape of civics in the state, the needs of educators, and how to better provide equitable civic learning for all. That work continues throughout this school year as the Investigating History evaluation seeks to ensure the new curriculum meets the needs of all students and classroom contexts, and to identify the support educators need to implement an inquiry-centered model with success. 

Read CIRCLE’s 2021 report on the state of civics in Massachusetts.