Training citizens, one student at a time

Legislation would mandate civics requirement in schools

ON FEBRUARY 15 the Legislature took up a bill entitled “An Act to Promote and Enhance Civic Engagement.” The bipartisan legislation, now making its way through the Senate Ways and Means Committee, would support educators across the Commonwealth providing high-quality civic education for all young people.

The proposed legislation mandates that every student engage in at least two student-led, civics projects, an approach validated by the best research on civic education and by the experience of communities right here in Massachusetts and across the country. If the bill passes, Massachusetts will take an important step in ensuring that every student, regardless of his or her background, will have opportunities to become an informed and engaged voter, to solve problems in their communities, and to steward the nation toward a more just and prosperous future. We cannot imagine a better way for our schools to fulfill their civic mission.

The idea that we must educate young people to participate in democracy has historic roots in the Commonwealth. More than a century ago it was another state legislator, Horace Mann, who cautioned that “if we do not prepare children to become good citizens . . . then our republic must go down to destruction, as others have gone before it.” His warning has turned out to be far less hyperbolic than prescient, as the rancorous divisions in our politics and growing distrust in public institutions threaten to pull apart our fraying civic life.

This bill provides an invaluable opportunity to start addressing these problems in our classrooms, by promoting civics instruction that goes beyond rote memorization about the Founding Fathers and the Constitution. Our students need a 21st Century civic education that helps young people find their voice, grapple with issues that they care about, and understand and practice their roles in local, state, and national politics.

The organizations we lead are at the forefront of efforts to study, promote, and implement the most effective ways to prepare students for democracy. Through its Center for Information and Research for Civic Learning & Engagement (CIRCLE), Tufts University’s Tisch College of Civic Life conducts some of the nation’s leading research on civic education.

By meeting with stakeholders, submitting testimony, and briefing district leaders, Tisch College has been at the forefront of efforts to ensure that the Commonwealth’s civic education reform efforts are informed by best-available research. The pending legislation is heavily informed by a report from Tisch College experts that takes its cue from Mann’s warning: “The Republic Is Still at Risk—and Civics is Part of the Solution.”

The report outlines how innovative approaches to civic education can enable and equip students of all backgrounds to meet today’s challenges. Project-based civics of the sort mandated by the bill is most effective when it prioritizes youth voice and agency. One approach to project-based civics is Action Civics, which involves concrete action in the community and engaging with government officials to pursue actual solutions.

When taught well, Action Civics can result in extraordinary outcomes for our students and our communities. It can also help address disparities across income and race that have historically denied underserved students access to high-quality civic education.

Across the Commonwealth, we’re seeing prime examples of what committed educators and students can achieve through the kind of civic education mandated by the proposed legislation. In Lowell, the school district has partnered with Generation Citizen to adopt its curriculum and make Action Civics a graduation requirement for all students in high school.

Students in Lowell are identifying issues that affect their community and spearheading initiatives to bring about lasting change. Last year, they partnered with city officials to institute a successful gun buy-back program, set up a community food bank at the high school, and studied ways to combat the opioid epidemic in their city.

In taking tangible, informed civic action, these young people grow as leaders, refine key skills such as deliberation and collaboration, build coalitions with diverse stakeholders, acquire first-hand knowledge of the political process, and—most importantly—develop a profound sense that their words and deeds matter, and can make a difference.

Take it from former student Carla Duran Capellan: “As a high school senior, I didn’t believe that I could make a change in my community or in this country. That quickly changed. After three months of hard work, learning how to do research, how to advocate for change, and how to contact and convince people in power, I learned that everything is possible when you know how to advocate.”

Generation’s Citizen’s model has been so successful at Lowell High School that middle schools in the city have begun to integrate it into their courses. It has also demonstrated that it’s possible to provide transformational, personally relevant, hands-on civics in a complex educational environment that serves a large number of refugees, English-language learners, and low-income families. These challenges can in fact become assets that enhance civic learning and action.

Generation Citizen has implemented Action Civics across large school districts such as Lowell, Malden, and Boston, and has learned what it takes for this kind of civic education to be successful anywhere: buy-in from district leaders, adequate funding, training and support for educators, and enthusiasm from the entire community. We are pleased that the proposed legislation addresses each of these components. In particular, legislators should be commended for requiring the creation of a Civics Project Fund that would help provide resources to districts who may not otherwise have them so that all students have access to high-quality civic education.

Meet the Author
Meet the Author

Arielle Jennings

Massachusetts executive director, Generation Citizen
More than 150 years ago, Mann’s Common School movement put Massachusetts at the forefront of American education. Today, we have a chance to lead the nation yet again by embracing the educational challenge of our time: preparing young people to repair and strengthen our democracy. It’s an opportunity we cannot afford to miss.

Alan D. Solomont is dean of the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life at Tufts University, a former United States Ambassador to Spain and Andorra, and former board chairman of the Corporation for National and Community Service. Arielle Jennings is the Massachusetts executive director of Generation Citizen.