After years of neglect, civics education appears to be having a “moment.” Just a brief glance at headlines and op-eds from publications and media across the political spectrum reveals what critics and advocates are talking about:
- “Fake News 101: The New Civics Course in U.S. Schools?” The Washington Times, February 6, 2017
- “Failing the Civics Test, Coast to Coast,” National Review, April 20, 2017
- “Can Teaching Civics Save Democracy?” NPR, September 22, 2017
It appears that growing political polarization and frustration have finally sparked a widespread realization: We need to do a better job of preparing democratically minded citizens, which may mean a revitalization in civics education in our schools.
A Strong Democratic Education
A strong representative democracy requires citizens who will choose to engage with one another in collective deliberation on how to live together. Our system simply cannot work without citizens who will listen respectfully to one another and recognize the legitimate concerns of people with whom they disagree. A strong democratic approach to civics education still informs students about democratic systems and cultivates their skills in evaluating information. But it goes beyond the fundamentals by engaging students in structured activities in which they experience intellectual diversity, cultivate receptivity to new information, and practice engaging in substantive dialogue with their classmates. A truly robust civics curriculum sends students out to make a tangible difference in their communities via service learning projects in which they can begin to understand the complexities of social change.
Promises and Pitfalls
Our country’s uncivilized discourse clearly extends beyond schools. Yet, three pieces of evidence suggest educators, including principals, can play a critical role in the solution. First, public schools are one of the few remaining shared spaces where individuals with an array of opinions and beliefs regularly gather—even demographically homogeneous schools expose students (and their parents) to greater diversity than they experience at home. Second, evidence suggests younger people are more open to considering information that challenges their beliefs. Third, students find exposure to opposing viewpoints highly engaging, and studies have found positive results when teachers incorporate intellectually diverse material into their classrooms. For these reasons, schools offer both an opportunity and a means for substantive change.
Why, then, do so many teachers fail to offer strong and engaging civics instruction? For some educators, a reliance on traditional methods reflects their core beliefs about the purpose of a civics education. Others refrain from intellectually rich civics activities because they fear criticism from members of the community who are suspicious about political indoctrination. And many teachers are unsure of what to do when students bring uncivil discourse into the classroom. Mindful of the potential for conflict, many teachers find it easier to avoid controversial topics and political content altogether.
What Building Leaders Can Do
School principals have a unique opportunity to support teachers in providing strong civics education in their position as cultural role models, supervisors, educators, and bridges between schools and community members. For example, principals can:
- Foster a democratic culture by publicly affirming that developing students’ skills and proclivities to engage in a fair exchange of ideas is a primary purpose of civics education. Teachers need to believe their supervisors will support them if parents push back against their children’s exposure to disconfirming information. Before problems arise, astute school leaders develop a culture of transparency, helping parents understand curricular goals, clarifying classroom practices, and explaining the safeguards in place to protect students’ rights to form their own opinions. Moreover, principals should serve as democratic role models by fostering public discourse and deliberation between stakeholders on matters of concern to the school community.
- Ensure equity by monitoring the extent to which enriching opportunities are available to all students and by making sure that challenging civics experiences are not reserved for students enrolled in honors courses. Consequently, school leaders may have to initiate courageous conversations about scheduling and teaching assignments, or they may need to provide support and guidance for teachers struggling to implement a more robust civics curriculum.
- Promote civil interaction and protect student expression. In this intensely polarized national climate, some students are likely to react emotionally or inappropriately when presented with intellectually diverse content. Principals must make sure teachers are able to minimize offensive behaviors without inhibiting the free exchange of ideas.
The courts provide guidance for public school personnel on regulating student speech within the bounds of the law. In Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, the landmark 1969 case, the Supreme Court established that high school students in public schools have the right to share nondisruptive contrary opinions when provided a forum to do so, provided they do not infringe upon the rights of others. However, in the interest of avoiding unpleasant classroom interactions, many teachers wrongly censor students with unpopular or contentious viewpoints either because they interpret the disruption standard too broadly or because they are unaware of the standard altogether.
Discussion of political and social issues are at the core of what the First Amendment is designed to protect. Thus, secondary school teachers should allow even unpopular opinions on these matters to enter the discourse, where they can be subjected to scrutiny. In doing so, teachers are neither required to shield students’ viewpoints from being criticized by their peers, nor must they treat all positions as morally equivalent. However, educators should censor speech that advocates violent or illegal actions, and they are on solid ground in prohibiting students from using profanity and obscenity.
When allowing students to critique one another’s positions, educators must prevent students from victimizing one another. States and districts with strong antibullying regulations provide welcome clarity and guidance for protecting marginalized students. But even in localities without distinct guidelines, school personnel are obligated to shield students from expression or action that inflicts psychological damage and interferes with their right to learn. Teachers should prohibit personal attacks, verbal abuse, and intimidation. They should also be vigilant in discouraging students from making disparaging comments about race, national origin, religion, gender, or sexual orientation.
Cultivating Good Habits in the Classroom
Proactive educators should cultivate students’ ability to thoughtfully consider conflicting views without rejecting them out of hand and teach students to civilly disagree with a position without resorting to personal attacks. Developing these habits requires schools to expose students to intellectual diversity and discourse in a pedagogically appropriate manner, ideally before they reach high school.
Public educators, however, must be careful to remain conspicuously nonpartisan when they are on duty and avoid political proselytizing. This means avoiding the appearance of taking political positions and restraining themselves from denigrating political leaders and institutions. School personnel should also be mindful that excessive criticism of the political process—no matter how justified it may seem—can undermine students’ faith in our system of governance and discourage them from becoming engaged citizens.
It is important to recognize that the requirement of political neutrality on unsettled matters of public policy does not suggest teachers must be open-minded about empirical subjects settled by a preponderance of scientific or historical evidence. Nor does a commitment to civic discourse require teachers to allow classroom deliberation on every political controversy. Instead, educators should consider civic discourse an instructional tool to be deployed strategically in service of meeting specific curricular goals using carefully selected topics.
Public schools are uniquely positioned to assist in revitalizing civic engagement. School leaders can and should rise to this moment, embrace the tensions that go along with promoting democratic principles, and remind our fellow citizens why the United States needs a strong system of public education.
Linda Mayger, EdD, is an assistant professor at The College of New Jersey in Ewing, NJ.
Editor’s note: RSVP has recently been revamped. To learn more, visit www.NatStuCo.org/rsvp.
Making it Work
Here’s how principals can implement a more rigorous civic education program in their schools:
- Connect. Hold an informal discussion with parents to talk about civic literacy.
- Educate. Include a refresher course on the boundaries of students’ First Amendment rights at the next faculty meeting.
- Model. Put together a working group tasked with developing schoolwide norms for civic discourse.
The RSVP Process
Raising Student Voice & Participation (RSVP) is a student engagement program sponsored by National Student Council and NASSP that can be easily integrated into existing student leadership programs in middle level and high schools. The RSVP process is a way to involve and empower all students to identify issues in their schools and communities and take steps to resolve them.
RSVP provides a structured process that opens a door for students to propose solutions and engage in action to address some of the most intransigent challenges that students and communities face.
Using RSVP, students can lead their schools in a conversation that raises awareness, seeks solutions, and promotes student-led action to address a myriad of topics (whether school-based or global), including solutions to:
- Prevent bullying and cyberbullying
- Improve student attendance, dropout rates, and graduation rates
- Create a socially inclusive school environment where no one is left out
- Promote health and nutrition in school and communities
- Support responsible use of technology in schools
- Encourage safe teen driving