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Educating for American Democracy: A Roadmap to Transform K-12 Civics

CIRCLE Director Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg is one of the seven principal investigators and the Pedagogy Task Force co-chair in this groundbreaking national effort to strengthen civic education in America.

We’re excited to join distinguished partners in celebrating the release of Educating for American Democracy: A Roadmap for Excellence in History and Civics Education for All Learners. This unprecedented effort, guided by the work of scholars and practitioners with multiple perspectives, provides guidance for excellence in civic and history education for all K-12 students—and aims to enhance the way in which these subjects are taught in schools so that they generate prepared, informed, and engaged citizens who will contribute to stronger, more equitable communities.

CIRCLE Director Kei Kwashima-Ginsberg is one of the central figures in this effort, which was funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities and the U.S. Department of Education. Dr. Kawashima-Ginsberg served as a principal investigator, co-chaired the Pedagogy Task Force and the K-5 inquiry Working Group, led the writing of a pedagogical companion to the main report, and also served on the Curation Task Force. Alex Foley, a student at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and a 2020 CIRCLE Diverse Democracy Fellow, worked alongside our director. Peter Levine, former director of CIRCLE and now Associate Dean of Academic Affairs at the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life—CIRCLE’s home institution—was also a principal investigator.

Explore the EAD Roadmap, and watch the March 2 Educating for American Democracy National Forum in which CIRCLE Director Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg was a featured panelist.

What Is the Educating for American Democracy Roadmap and What Does It Say?

This project brought together a national network of more than 300 scholars, educators, and practitioners from diverse backgrounds and perspectives. They collaborated to create a Roadmap and accompanying documents that states and local school districts can use as guidance to transform the way that they teach civics and history so that it meets the needs of today’s diverse, 21st century K-12 student body. The Roadmap is not a mandate or a curriculum; it is a set of educational strategies and suggested themes for history and civics at every grade level—along with strategies for implementation in schools—that every state and district can choose to adapt to fit the needs of their own communities. Crucially, the process that led to the Educating for Democracy (EAD) Roadmap included input from current students.

An Inquiry Framework that Combines History and Civics

The Roadmap explicitly recommends a shift from the way that most schools have taught history and civics: from a model based on the learning of long, detailed, and practically unteachable sets of state standards to one that uses an inquiry process that weaves history and civics together, and that inspires students to learn by asking difficult questions and then seeking fact-based answers in and out of the classroom. This approach to learning inspires students to want to become involved in democracy and help to sustain our Republic; tells a full and complete narrative of America’s pluralistic but shared story; celebrates the compromises needed to make our constitutional democracy work; cultivates civic honesty and patriotism that leaves space to both love and critique the country; and teaches history and civics through both a timeline of events and through the themes that run through those events.

graphic about the EAD Roadmap

Recommended Teaching Approaches

To that end, the Educating for American Democracy Pedagogical Companion authored by our director Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg recommends approaches to civic instruction that: 

  • Inspire students to want to become involved in the constitutional democracy and help to sustain our Republic 
  • Tell a full and complete narrative of America’s plural yet shared story 
  • Celebrate the compromises needed to make our constitutional democracy work 
  • Cultivate civic honesty and patriotism that leaves space to both love and critique this country
  • Teach history and civics both through a timeline of events and the themes that run through those events

Equity-Focused

The EAD Roadmap and teaching companion is also explicitly concerned with equity. Too often, policymakers limit equity to equal distribution of material resources to support civic education. EAD’s equity mission extends into supporting the development of civic agency to all students in a way that brings an array of content into classrooms so that learners from every background can connect their personal identities to the broad civic community in positive and enabling ways. That includes delivering complete histories to learners that integrate the perspectives of the many diverse peoples who have populated the North American continent and the United States over time and a more complete and honest accounting of America’s past—both the good and the bad.

Implementation

Finally, the Roadmap includes practical recommendations for implementation, such as setting clear guidance across grade bands for what should be learned and potential student benchmarks like badging systems. It also highlights strategies for local adaptation and adoption of the Roadmap, and state-level benchmarks that support continuous improvement. In addition, the EAD Roadmap recommends investment in developing a corps of history and civics educators that mirror the diversity of our students.

Many of these recommendations, particularly its pedagogical principles as laid out by our director Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg, are informed by direct feedback from educators across the country collected through interactive workshops, review of research from multiple disciplines, and CIRCLE’s previous work on landmark reports like All Together Now: Collaboration and Innovation for Youth Engagement (2013), The Republic is (Still) at Risk–and Civics is Part of the Solution (2017), and more recently our efforts to evaluate the implementation of K-12 civics legislation in states like Florida, Illinois, and Massachusetts.

Why This? Why Now?

A strong, equitable civic education is the foundation of a strong democracy, which requires a citizenry that has the knowledge, skills, and desire to participate in it. That’s always been true; it’s even more so now, at a time when the country is deeply polarized and its people are poorly trained to meet the modern challenges of our political system and our civic life.

In no small part, it’s because we have disinvested in history and civics education. At the federal level, we spend approximately $50 per student per year on STEM fields and approximately 5 cents per student on civics.

A lack of consensus about the substance of history and civics education—what and how to teach is another significant barrier. The Educating for American Democracy initiative seeks to address that challenge by providing the tools to make civics and history a priority in every school and classroom in the country.

For CIRCLE, our work on the Educating for Democracy Roadmap is in keeping with our long history of studying and promoting more equitable civic learning. On our 20th anniversary, we’re proud of our contributions to this momentous effort at a critical time in the nation’s history.