We believe that civics education is a critical tool towards strengthening our democracy and our civic institutions. But we can’t improve K-12 civics education without engaging young people in the process. Action civics does just that.
In a recent critique of “action civics,” two American Enterprise Institute scholars set up a false dichotomy between “traditional” civics education and action civics –a dichotomy that is meant to stoke controversy and add to the current culture wars over our public schools. While they argued that schools need to focus more on teaching about check and balances and our political institutions, we, the leadership at Mikva Challenge, argue that action civics is one of the best teaching strategies to teach these foundational concepts, and to achieve the objectives the authors think are vital for the strength and endurance of democracy — especially around students’ skills in self governance in a pluralistic society. We believe there is an urgent need for a renewed investment in and prioritization of student-centered civics education as a cure to the instability of our democracy.
And leading national education organizations — like the National Council of Social Studies, the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) and the CivXNow Coalition– would agree.
Contrary to the authors critique, action civics does not replace teaching about checks and balances or the three branches of government, but rather provides an applied, project-based approach to civic education that cultivates students’ problem-solving, research, communication, and listening skills, and ability to compromise. The National Council of Social Studies own College, Career, and Civic Life (C3) Framework for Social Studies State Standards clearly outlines these best practices in civic education that are grounded in knowledge, critical inquiry, taking informed action and reflection.
Action civics can be as simple as students voting on a class constitution and creating a process for upholding the rights and responsibilities outlined in their class constitution. It can also be as expansive as young people advocating for new policies and/or programs within their schools and communities.
In much the same way that students learn physics and chemistry by reading equations and then testing them in a lab, students’ understanding of democracy is enhanced when they have the opportunity and time to practice it. As CIRCLE, a research institute out of Tufts University, states in their literature review of best practices in history and civics education: “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.”
Action civics is not a threat to civics education — it is, in fact, a lifeline to a subject that has long been rated one of students’ least favorite classes. As multiple national studies have found, large percentages of both young people and adults lack critical information about our civic institutions, and have a rising distrust of government. For instance, an Annenburg Public Policy Center study found that only 39% of Americans could name all three branches of the U.S. government. For our nation’s students, less than 25% of students reach “proficient” scores for civics on the National Assessment of Education Progress. And in a likely related outcome of this lack of civic knowledge, high rates of millennials report a lack of trust in government and faith in democracy.
With these dismal results, is it such a wild idea that we might adapt and improve civics education to be more engaging and relevant to students’ lives so as to leave students with a larger sense of their own civic identity, commitment to our democracy and belief in their own ability to make change?
When students work on a project to improve something in their school or community, they gain critical skills and knowledge about how our systems of government work. In the process, they learn who is the decision-maker in charge of their issues and gain an understanding of what is under local, state or federal control, and how those systems work together.
But perhaps most importantly, they learn how to work with others to reach a common goal. They listen to their peers’ ideas, brainstorm solutions together and then propose an idea or advocate to a key decision maker, and they — more often than not — learn the lifelong lesson of compromise. They often work in partnership with a local leader, learning about the concerns and needs of that leader and learning how to reach a solution that will work for all parties.
And this approach to teaching civics gets results. Mikva Challenge’s internal evaluations show that after participating in Project Soapbox, over 90% of students report wanting to “try harder in school,” — a telling data point that suggests increasing students’ connection to their own learning and relevancy of the curriculum to their lived experiences could have positive effects on overall student engagement and learning. DePaul University studied our Project Soapbox curriculum and found that the program, “helped students develop the knowledge and skills needed to participate in a democratic society,” with specific positive outcomes tied to their active listening and public speaking skills, among others. Over 70% of students in the study reported that their “empathy and understanding,” for their peers changed because of the Soapbox program, and 86% of students said their understanding of an issue or concept had changed through hearing their peers’ speeches.”
As the Guardian of Democracy: The Civic Mission of Schools report states, “students who receive both traditional and interactive civics score highest on assessments and demonstrate high levels of twenty-first century skills such as critical thinking, news comprehension, and work ethic.”
Like the AEI scholars, we believe that civics education is a critical tool towards strengthening our democracy and our civic institutions. But we can’t improve K-12 civics education without engaging young people in the process. Action civics does just that. It invites young people into the dialogue, into our civic processes and institutions, and provides them an opportunity to bring their voices, their ideas and their solutions to some of our country’s most persistent challenges. As we say at Mikva Challenge, “democracy is a verb!” So, if we want an informed, empowered, and active citizenry, let’s prioritize civic education that is relevant, engaging and a proven strategy for building a healthier and more inclusive democracy now.