A Note to the Department of Education

The US Department of Education has requested public comment about their strategies for promoting civic learning and engagement. Public comments are part of a much larger process for government public engagement; they then typically use these comments to inform their own work as they move towards final decisions. Generation Citizen staff in collaboration with education faculty at Wagner College (one of our partner universities) wrote and submitted the statement below. In our statement, we argue for high-quality civic learning, and present action civics (including Generation Citizen’s work) as one example. We also talk about the benefits of collaboration, including the National Action Civics Collaborative that Generation Citizen co-founded, and our partnerships with universities like Wagner College to prepare college students to serve as Democracy Coaches.

Defining “Civic Learning and Engagement”

Foundations for defining civic learning and engagement already exist in two cornerstone documents, Guardian of Democracy: The Civic Mission of Schools and A Crucible Moment: College Learning and Democracy’s Future, which agree with ED that civic knowledge, skills, and dispositions are necessary to any discussion of civic learning and engagement. We urge ED to ground its conceptualization of such terms in these reports due to their broad support across the civic education community. Additionally, we posit that high-quality civic learning requires using curricula that are action-oriented, community-based, student-centered, and standards-aligned, imbued with teaching critical thinking skills and doing applied work. Such civic learning opportunities are associated with increases in students’ civic engagement and academic achievement. When conceptualizing civic engagement, we encourage ED to recognize that individuals can be involved in their communities in myriad ways and that there are multiple types of citizens. As illustrated here, ED will find ample support for broadening and deepening the connections between knowledge and dispositions and the civic skills that are at the heart of civic engagement.

Convene and Catalyze the Education Community and Collaboration

Throughout the last two decades, numerous private and public groups have begun to work together, identifying for themselves some of the best practices in action civics and civic engagement. The National Action Civics Collaborative, for example, was founded by six organizations to share research, practices, and models for youth civic engagement, especially as applied to closing the civic engagement gap. In response to the need for increased civics knowledge, skills, and dispositions, externally-based action civics programs have arisen to promote student civic and academic outcomes, and were recently applauded by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. Action civics curricula aim to teach students about politics and community by giving them a chance to participate in democratic activities, although the specific activities in which students might engage vary per program. In action civics, students select issues important to them and take action on those issues within a context that promotes reflection, skills development, and other forms of learning.

Thus, ED might consider that its role as a central participant and/or catalyst may be different than it is with regards to other initiatives. Rather than simply convene issue-based discussions (e.g., curricular development, defining civic engagement), we encourage ED to convene stakeholder-based discussions that emphasize collaboration across various constituencies (e.g., K-12 schools, non-profit action civics organizations, colleges/universities). While many scholars are currently doing relevant, important work involving action civics at the Kindergarten-12 level and others are doing such work at the post-secondary level, there is often an unintentional disconnect between the two.

This is not to say that such connections are not being made. Barbara Ferman has illustrated how action civics can be nested within the university setting, and Professor Fitzgerald teaches a freshman seminar to prepare Wagner College students in civic education pedagogical methods who then partner with classroom teachers on Staten Island to implement Generation Citizen. However, with a few notable exceptions (e.g., Generation Citizen, which trains college student volunteers to work alongside classroom teachers), many action civics curricula are designed for K-12 teachers to independently implement in their classrooms. ED should consider convening a national conference between action civics organizations and civically engaged colleges and universities (i.e., the signatories to A Crucible Moment), focusing specifically on how to prepare both college and K-12 students to become effective citizens. In doing so, ED could be the catalyst for broader action linking the whole education system toward its goal.

Nowhere are these conversations more important than with regards to specific efforts for address the civic empowerment gap. While generalizable data is certainly important, any serious study of civic learning must have a significant focus on how best to implement action civics curricula in urban settings, where students have historically lower participatory citizenship levels. Again, ED’s role as a connection between institutions of higher education and K-12 schools can be useful in this regard. Some schools and departments of education, such as the one at Wagner College, are actively partnering with low-socioeconomic K-12 schools; leveraging partnerships between them and action civics organizations by providing the space and the funding for civic learning collaborations is an important step to making sure that all students benefit from ED’s initiatives.

Identifying Measures and Leveraging Partnerships

Despite the best efforts of the civic education community, there are limited longitudinal and generalizable data from which specific measures can be derived. In addition to convening broader discussions about civic education across the entire curriculum, ED should also partner closely with IES, supporting projects that provide these data. Such collaboration between ED and IES would allow for better integration between civic education scholars, funding sources, and the realities of curricular implementation in K-12 schools.

In addition to measures, civic education policymakers must also recognize the reality of standards when encouraging teachers to implement action civics curricula; in particular, how such curricula can align with not just civics standards, but also state English/Language Arts standards and others. Research linking action civics curricula to student success with the Common Core Standards, for example, may provide one incentive for teachers to provide quality implementation. Connecting to these standards must also be an emphasis on how action civics is assessed; work from the Gates Foundation on badging may provide one alternative assessment strategy beyond the arbitrary and/or inauthentic A-F grading system. Research related to teachers’ practical concerns will support the sustainable implementation of action civics curricula needed for quality measurement.