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What the Research Says: History and Civics Education

A summary, based on research conducted by CIRCLE and many other scholars, of key considerations for creating more equitable and effective civic learning.

Note: A portion of the text below was submitted as a comment to the U.S. Department of Education's Proposed Priorities for American History and Civics Education.

Twenty years of research and expertise on civic education have taught us that young people need and deserve an education about how the United States’ constitutional democracy, its people, and its institutions work together to make positive change—while learning to seek out and embrace the diverse experiences and perspectives that represent our nation. Only this kind of education will truly prepare them to lead and solve problems in the 21st century. As a result, we’d like to share what we’ve learned from two decades of our own research on this topic as well as the valuable work of other scholars and partners.

Background

CIRCLE's work on civic education dates back to 2003 and the foundational The Civic Mission of Schools report, which launched influential efforts to create new civic education laws, standards, and programs. Later, then-CIRCLE director Dr. Peter Levine chaired the civics writing team of the C3 Framework for Social Studies State Standards published in 2013. That year, the report of our Commission on Youth Voting and Civic Knowledge offered updated recommendations for civic education. And, in 2018, CIRCLE’s current director Dr. Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg became one of the Principal Investigators on Educating for American Democracy, a federally supported project to map out what it would take to strengthen history and civics education in the U.S. In particular, Dr. Kawashima-Ginsberg co-led the development of research-informed guiding principles for teaching with the Roadmap, so that educators can effectively teach rigorous content—including difficult parts of American history, while ensuring that students of all backgrounds and identities feel safe in their own classrooms and develop civic agency no matter where they live. 

Based on this extensive experience and expertise in the field of K-12 civic education, we offer key lessons learned through our research and partnerships that we hope will inform federal and state priorities and civic education curriculum development. Our research is non-partisan, and we believe strongly that our schools must serve all students, across backgrounds and identities.  We are fortunate that advances in the science of learning, and in historical research, now provide ample evidence and tools for students to receive the kind of comprehensive and effective social studies education we know they need. Our recommendations, based on clear research findings, aim to take advantage of this critical progress.

Note: A full list of references is at the end of this text. 

Youth Are Influenced by What They See and Hear

Through a process of civic socialization, young people pick up lessons and messages about democracy and community engagement from a variety of people, places, and institutions throughout their life. This is one element of civic development, which is the process of learning about democracy and civic life and how to take part in it. It is critically important for all young people to see and hear messages that teach and reinforce that they have a place in civic life and a role to play in democracy.

Those Messages and Experiences Are As Diverse as the U.S.

The so-called “majority-minority” society has been a reality in U.S. public schools for a number of years.  Just as our students have become increasingly diverse, so have the civic opportunities, lessons, and experiences young people have day-to-day, especially for youth of historically marginalized identities, races/ethnicities, and communities. Specifically, research continues to show that children from marginalized communities remain less likely to be served well by civic and political institutions. This creates and reinforces vast inequality in young people’s levels of readiness to participate in community and democratic life. These inequalities are apparent as early as the first day of kindergarten.

Some youth might get very few positive lessons or opportunities related to civic life and the ability of democracy to bring change, which is itself a message they may absorb about their place in our institutions and our country. Our educational institutions, and especially civic education that occurs in schools, must take into account and seek to remedy these inequities in order to prepare all students for full participation in civic life, rather than simply conveying content. Keen attention to “how” we teach about community life and democracy is important, and a commitment to serve all students is an essential element of a healthy democracy.

Youth Bring These Diverse Experiences to School

Because of the messages and experiences they’ve absorbed, young people’s civic education does not begin in the classroom—it has already begun long before students set foot in a school. But in school, these experiences, and the views and perspectives that they inform, must interact and coexist with those of diverse young people who have different experiences, ideas, and identities. That’s both a challenge and an opportunity inherent to our pluralistic society. These diverse and, unfortunately, often inequitable messages that youth receive about their value, voice, and role in civic life require teachers to use a variety of tools to be effective civic educators and to move all youth along so they’ll be ready to participate and contribute to communities. 

Education that Includes Diverse Experiences Allows Youth to Think with Rigor

The confluence, and even the clashes of perspectives in the classroom can be a boon for civic learning. Young people’s education is more rigorous and comprehensive when they can look at issues and history from multiple vantage points and understand the experiences and perspectives of Americans of different races and ethnicities. It’s more effective when all youth can see themselves—and their role—in the past, present, and future of the United States. Participating in our democracy requires feeling that you belong in it and that it’s relevant to your life. Schools must foster this sense of belonging and civic responsibility, which will necessarily look different for every student.

Civic Education Must Include the Ability to Analyze and Use Information in the 21st Century

Students have information coming at them constantly: through conversations with peers and relatives, through the various media on their screens, and in myriad other ways. In order for students to understand the problems of our democracy with clarity and rigor, both access to information and the skills to analyze and interpret it are critical. That includes the information they need to be an informed voter, and someone who can discuss and advocate on issues that affect them and their family. 

A Deep Commitment to Participation in Democracy Is Built through Real-World Practice

The kind of education young people receive in the classroom is crucial, but some of the most important civic lessons are learned outside of it. Students learn best, and develop lifelong habits and commitments of civic participation, when they get to put what they learn into practice in their communities by connecting the curriculum to real-world events and institutions. Whether it’s through service learning or other forms of experiential education, young people must do more than read about what it takes to be an active participant in democracy. They must actually do it.

Teachers Need Resources and Support, Including from Families and Communities

Enthusiasm for young people’s learning is contagious and can extend outside the school, where families and communities are critical partners in civic development. Robust school-family partnerships are critical: teachers must know they have the full support of families and communities to provide rigorous, multifaceted civic education without fear of accusations of bias or questions about their professional integrity. Teachers also require adequate preparation and resources. That includes access to ongoing opportunities to learn, improve, and stay up-to-date with the issues and new research that can shape what and how they teach their students.

Let's Prepare the Next Generation to Face the Issues of Today and Tomorrow 

American democracy, and our communities’ ability to thrive, depend on young people being prepared to face, discuss, and address today’s social, political and economic problems. In fact, we cannot solve problems without understanding them more deeply, from a range of perspectives and experiences that must include race/ethnicity. That preparation for the complex, diverse country and world we live in must be one of the fundamental roles and goals of education.

References

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  • Anderson, Norman, & Scheel (2019).  2019 Survey of Minnesota Election Judge Programs. Minneapolis: YMCA of the North. Retrieved December 16, 2020 at https://drive.google.com/file/d/1AKNy3-UOdCy9yGhnQkNrsAQA9eaVkHnQ/view  
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