Mandating civics classes is a mistake

Proposed legislation is wrong approach to the right goal

IN THEIR RECENT opinion piece in CommonWealth, Alan Solomont and Arielle Jennings argue for mandated civics education and “An Act to Promote and Enhance Civic Engagement,” a bill making its way through the Legislature. As a former civics teacher and current high school principal, I fully support their goal and vigorously oppose their approach.

Solomont and Jennings explain that the bill is “heavily informed” by a recent report from Solomont’s colleagues at Tufts. This is troubling because, like so much research in education and public policy, the report’s authors reach a predetermined conclusion by ignoring contradictions and shortcomings in their logic and data. The scholars, Peter Levine and Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg, have a clear understanding of the research and data, but insist on interpreting both in a manner that defies reason.

The researchers argue that we should mandate civics education because Florida did so in 2010 and some middle school students there have shown gains on their standardized civics tests and on attitudinal surveys, but there is no evidence that such measures are related to positive civic outcomes (these outcomes include actions such as voting, participation in civic organizations, and volunteering, as well as skills and dispositions like critical thinking, effective communication, and commitment to democratic values). There is also evidence that students from more privileged backgrounds outperform their disadvantaged peers on these tests and there is no evidence that good civics programs mitigate class-based disparities in educational attainment or civic outcomes. In fact, the researchers argue that positive outliers (i.e. schools serving disadvantaged students that outperform similar schools on tests of civic knowledge) are characterized by strong school leadership and positive school cultures, not by better civics programs.

The researchers go on to note that there is variation in the quality of the civics programs in Florida schools, but tell us nothing about that variation. Earlier in the report, they note other research indicating that students’ access to quality civics programs is strongly associated with socioeconomic status, but then fail to let us know whether or not this is the case in Florida. This could be an oversight, or it could be an attempt to exclude inconvenient truths.

Still, they insist that we should follow Florida’s example and mandate civics education. Their unstated theory of action is this: If we mandate civics classes, and specify the content and methods of those classes, then students will receive a quality civics education and civic outcomes will improve. Unfortunately, the data from Florida, and the national research they cite, do not support this theory. Moreover, given our recent experience with mandates in public K-12 education in Massachusetts, we should be wary of new mandates and their unintended consequences.

I have worked in public high schools in Massachusetts for almost two decades and have directly experienced the failures and negative externalities of various mandates. Mandated “category training” for teachers working with English learners was found unacceptable by the US Department of Justice and replaced with a new “SEI [sheltered English immersion] endorsement” system that has required teachers and schools to dedicate scarce time and resources to an untested initiative that may well become obsolete as we start to return to bilingual education.

The short-lived mandate to develop “district determined measures” for teacher evaluation further strained schools’ resources and wasted our precious time, while creating anxiety, confusion, and disruption. Most importantly, mandated high-stakes testing has done nothing to reduce achievement gaps but has significantly narrowed the curriculum (especially for disadvantaged students) and fundamentally changed the fabric of our schools in ways that we may not understand for quite some time. It has certainly distracted us from our civic mission as we relentlessly chase MCAS scores that our colleges ignore because they know those measures have no relationship with post-secondary success.

All of these mandates, and many more, have bred cynicism among our students, families, and teachers, which is likely contributing to our inability to get significant numbers of talented college students to pursue careers in education.

Mandates fail in education for the same reason that they fail elsewhere. As communist economies have consistently demonstrated, top-down mandates and quotas create perverse incentives for actors to game the system and pursue compliance without regard for quality. If we mandate specific civic education programs, we will surely get schools to implement such programs, but the costs may well be high. As we work to implement this new mandate, we will need to shift time, energy, and attention away from other improvement initiatives and mandates.  Moreover, as many schools inevitably struggle with compliance, they will likely implement low-quality programs that could further erode the public’s confidence in our schools and their support for civic education in general.

I entered education to help young adults become socially responsible citizens and I am fully committed to the goal of promoting positive civic outcomes. I am reasonably familiar with the research and know that the best predictor of positive civic outcomes is educational attainment, as Levine and Kawashima-Ginsberg note in their report. So let’s double down on proven and promising practices to improve educational attainment, especially for disadvantaged students.  Expanding early college programs at high schools, reducing the cost of public higher education, and increasing academic supports for disadvantaged students at college will likely go a long way towards this goal.

Meet the Author

Joshua Otlin

Principal, Milford High School
We should also work to promote quality civics education programs in our schools, especially in schools serving large proportions of disadvantaged students who do not have such programs. Solomont and Jennings spotlight the implementation of Generation Citizen in Lowell as a promising example of how good civic education practices spread in schools. Lowell’s experience shows us how quality local initiatives earn community support and organically scale-up.  Lowell’s story is about good educators doing the hard, slow work of school improvement.  Legislation to support quality civics education needs to support such work, and mandates are not the way to do it.

Joshua Otlin is the principal at Milford High School and a former social studies teacher. As a social studies teacher, he won the nation’s premier fellowship for civics teachers, the James Madison Memorial Fellowship. He also trained civic educators from the United States and former communist countries while serving as a Civics Mosaic Fellow, and helped write innovative civics curricula while consulting for The Choices Program at Brown University.