Civics law provides solid foundation for teachers, students

Criticism of statute misses breadth of mandate

IN A RECENT CommonWealth piece, University of Massachusetts Lowell professor Jack Schneider took issue with a civics education bill recently signed by Gov. Charlie Baker. The measure is primarily designed to teach and engage students through project-based civics education, an instructional approach also known as “action civics.”

Schneider took issue with the new civic education law on the grounds it will only lead to rote, textbook-based civic learning. If this was the case, I would certainly share his concern. However, this law works to ensure instruction is project-based by fostering not only the civic knowledge but the civic skills needed for a functioning democracy.

Generation Citizen, a national non-profit whose Massachusetts chapter I lead, works closely with districts and schools, from Boston to Lowell to Fall River, to prepare teachers to embed action civics curriculum into core History and Social Studies classes so all students in a school have access to project-based, student led civics within the school day. We deliver exactly the type of engagement and learning through action civics that Schneider called for in his piece and why Generation Citizen alongside legislators, young people, and civic educators spent the last two years carefully crafting and advocating to get this bill signed into law.

How does action civics work in practice? Students work in teams to choose an issue they care about and conduct their own research and analysis to deepen their understanding. Along the way, they meet with elected officials and other leaders to understand different perspectives on the issue and levers to influence laws and policies related to their issue, ultimately taking real-world action in their communities. This mirrors the description and intent of “student-led civics projects” as called for in the law.

In addition to deepening their understanding of the issue itself, students along the way develop the collaboration, communication, and critical-thinking skills that are essential for an informed citizenry. The instructional approach and skills that students learn through action civics are identical to what Schneider called for in his piece, and they’re precisely what the bill calls for all schools in the Commonwealth to provide to their students.

Educating our students in what it means to be engaged citizens cannot be accomplished by one teacher, school, or organization or, as Schneider puts it, simply a “new state of mind” among educators. Addressing the much larger and systemic problem that is the divestment in civic education over the last many decades requires a holistic approach which includes comprehensive legislation as well as grassroots efforts. This divestment has happened in part due to funding and resources being prioritized to subjects that have high-stakes tests associated with them and away from civics and social studies.

Additionally, in 2003 we saw civics content depleted from the state Social Science and History Standards. Civics has, thankfully, been brought back during the recent state standards revision this summer including new “practice standards” that focus on skills development. This law ensures that civics will never again be cut from our state standards and creates a publicly-funded Civics Trust Fund to train teachers and ensure that civics is returned to the classroom in a high-quality project-based way — not just with the introduction of new textbooks.

When I travel from district to district and speak with educators who are newly implementing action civics, they often share with me that teaching in this way is one of the most rewarding experiences of their professional career. There is a deep will and potential among teachers to teach civics in engaging and creative ways. This new law helps unlock this potential by providing teachers and school leaders with a mandate for project-based civics and the tangible resources they need to do this work well after decades of underinvestment.

Meet the Author

Arielle Jennings

Massachusetts executive director, Generation Citizen
The goal of delivering effective civics education in Massachusetts and beyond won’t be achieved by a single law alone. The new statute’s impact will be multiplied through grass-roots engagement exactly as Schneider calls for. Now that Baker has signed the civics education bill into the law, the hard work begins to deliver on its promise. We need an all-hands-on-deck approach, and that requires the engagement of individuals and organizations throughout Massachusetts both at the policy and individual level – the exact civic engagement approach we can expect students across Massachusetts will learn as a result of this bill.

Arielle Jennings is executive director of Generation Citizen Massachusetts, an organization focused on teaching students civics education to ensure they are active in participants in democracy.