Generation Citizen Testimony to the New York City Council Education Committee

On March 23, 2018, Generation Citizen NYC Program Director, Brooke Wallace, submitted public testimony about the New York City Council’s Education Committee Budget and the importance of having Action Civics in the classroom. Here she explains the crucial role Action Civics has in effectively addressing New York City’s civic participation problem. Read on!

Good Morning Members of the City Council’s Education Committee:

Thank you for the opportunity to testify today on behalf of Generation Citizen (“GC”) about the New York City Council Education Committee budget. Our New York City Executive Director DeNora Getachew sends her regrets that she unable to testify before the Committee today.

GC is a seven-year-old national nonpartisan, nonprofit dedicated to bringing civics education back into the classroom through a new, engaging pedagogy: Action Civics. Action Civics is a “student-centered, project-based approach to civics education that develops the individual skills, knowledge, and dispositions necessary for 21st century democratic practice” (National Action Civics Collaborative). It differs from normative, knowledge-based civic education in the same way that taking any “hands-on,” project-based, or experiential course differs from reading a textbook. Students learn about democratic structures and processes by directly engaging with them, as well as with each other, to address one or more issues they care about, which are impacting their community.

GC is the largest Action Civics education organization with a national model. Last year, GC educated approximately 9,000 students through our work in New York City and 5 additional sites: Rhode Island, where we were founded on Brown University’s campus; Massachusetts; the Bay Area, California; Oklahoma City, Oklahoma; and Central Texas. GC partners with teachers and schools to help them implement our standards-aligned Action Civics education program twice weekly over the course of a semester, often added to History, Social Studies, the state-mandated Participation in Government class, or similar in-school class time. We deploy two models to implement our Action Civics curriculum: college volunteer, or Democracy Coach model; and teacher led model. Our two models are unified by a shared Action Civics curriculum, our innovative approach to advocacy planning and support, and supplemental resources for students, teachers, and schools. Our goal is to ensure that every student in the United States gains the knowledge and skills necessary to participate in our 21st century democracy as active, lifelong citizens. GCNYC has helped over 18,000 New York City middle and high school students find their voice and advocate for systemic local policy reform through our Action Civics curriculum, making the site the largest and flagship in the organization.

GC is focused on reinvigorating civics education in schools through our Action Civics model in order to address America’s civic participation problem. Though this problem has been growing in impact over the last several decades, recent data shows that only 23 percent of eighth graders nationwide are proficient in civics. Worse, young people nationwide are receiving unequal civic learning opportunities: students in low-income schools, when compared with just average socioeconomic status (SES) schools, are half as likely to study how laws are made, and 30 percent less likely to report having experiences with debates or panel discussions in social studies classes.

In New York, the picture is even more bleak. New York ranked 41st out of 50 states in voter turnout during the 2016 election: just 57 percent of eligible voters cast ballots. Little more than half that percentage cast votes in the 2014 midterms, and in the September 2017 citywide primary election, approximately 15 percent of registered Democrats went to the polls.

While there are many reasons for the lack of overall civic participation, one root cause of the problem is that civic engagement is not seen as a high priority in our schools today, and too much of our efforts are focused on elections and the experience of voting. But that’s just one action on one day. GC believes that an effective Action Civics education and sustained participation is needed to re engage young people in the local political system, and to collectively strengthen our democracy.

GC recently released our bold plan to reinvigorate civics education nationwide, using three strategies over the next three years: (i) strengthen our existing program; (ii) expand our program portfolio to prove the efficacy of the model by implementing Action Civics in rural communities; and (iii) advocate for Action Civics for all students statewide leveraging the state mandated Participation in Government one semester civics course.

Overview of Action Civics Model

In GC’s Action Civics course, students debate issues directly affecting them, like police community relations, domestic violence, or discrimination, and work as a class to decide on one focus issue to address during the semester. Through our student-led program, they develop strategic action plans to effect systemic change on the identified issue, implement the plan by engaging directly with influencers and decision-makers, and present their findings at Civics Day, a semester-end showcase. Students learn valuable academic and life skills, like public speaking, collaboration, critical thinking, and how to work through difference. They also gain firsthand experience engaging in an important lifelong habit, understanding how they can directly inform and influence change in their community through the democratic process.

Thanks to the Council’s $500,000 investment in GC’s program through the Civic Education in New York City Schools Initiative, GC NYC doubled our impact in Fiscal Year 2017, educating and empowering approximately 3,400 sixth through twelfth graders citywide via our Democracy Coach model. Our Democracy Coaches provide extra capacity to teachers by researching relevant articles for the classroom as well as securing a guest speaker to engage with the class. In addition to providing extra capacity, Democracy Coaches bring an element of excitement and energy to the classroom since they are new face and they can give the GC students information on their college experience.

We are incredibly thankful that the City Council renewed funding for GC in Fiscal Year 2018 to enable us to educate and empower approximately 3,750 students to find their voice and become civically engaged this year. GC recruited, trained and placed 125 CUNY college volunteers as Democracy Coaches in our classrooms to co-facilitate our curriculum alongside experienced NYC public school teachers, as well as serve as peer-to-near-peer mentors to students in the classroom. We are thankful for the City Council funding, which allows GC to provide stipends to our Democracy Coaches at our 5 CUNY college partners — Baruch College, Hunter College, John Jay College, Medgar Evers College and Queens College.

This year, we piloted a teacher led program model based on a model refined in our Massachusetts site. The teacher led program allows us to scale our Action Civics programming and partner with schools in less central locations or where teacher preference supports implementation through this model. In our teacher led model we provide our teachers with professional development, research support and materials such as our curriculum, handbooks and digital resources. We provide an initial five hours of professional development training followed by a two and a half hour long training and two coaching sessions from GC staff. Thanks in large part to an investment from The New York Community Trust, this year, we are implementing our teacher led program model in twenty-nine classrooms in nine school in eight City Council districts.

GC is excited about Mayor de Blasio’s Civics for All initiative. As the largest Action Civics education provider in New York City, GC would welcome the opportunity to partner with the Administration to share its expertise in creating and implementing engaging, student-led, project-based programming that increases students’ civic knowledge, skills and motivation. As previously mentioned, GC offers a teacher-led model to provide teachers with the training and support necessary to facilitate our Action Civics curriculum and teach nonpartisan advocacy in the classroom. This year, GCNYC is educating over 700 New York City public school students through this teacher professional development model, which is replicable for scale.

Based on published accounts about the Civics for All initiative, the Administration will pilot a civics education program in all academic disciplines during the 2018–19 school year, provide professional development to all teachers during the summer of 2019, and implement civics education in all academic disciplines systemwide during the 2019–20 school year. GC is encouraged by the proposal to implement civics education in all academic disciplines as we have experimented with this approach in our partnership with city schools with great success. GC partners with schools by implementing Action Civics in classes such as Participation in Government, Social Studies Economics and even Science classes where students selected environmental focus issues, such as reducing air pollution and asthma rates.

We respectfully recommend that the Administration utilize an Action Civics framework for this initiative rather than utilizing an antiquated civics education framework that relies primarily on rote memorization, which has been proven to be ineffective in educating students about how to participate in a twenty-first century democracy. As described above, the Action Civics approach ensures that students are choosing community issues that are important to them and engaging with local government and civic content through project-based learning pedagogies. Our very rough estimate is that it will cost the Administration approximately $4,755,000 to implement Action Civics systemwide and provide professional development to all New York City public school teachers on how to teach project-based learning and nonpartisan advocacy in the classroom.

We look forward to partnering with the Mayor, new Chancellor Carranza, and the new Chief Democracy Officer to ensure that all secondary students citywide receive an effective Action Civics education. We also look forward to ensuring that our youth have concrete opportunities to further their civic engagement beyond the classroom, including through meaningful and informed voter registration, as well as through GC’s Community Change Fellowship — a stipended, cohort-based summer internship program for alumni of our in class Action Civics program who have already demonstrated their commitment to civic engagement to allow them to apply their civic knowledge and skills while working in government agencies, with elected officials, or in community based nonprofits; Participatory Budgeting; and Community Boards, where 16 and 17 year olds are able to serve thanks in part to successful advocacy by GC and other coalition partners.

In conclusion, GC believes that all students need an Action Civics education in order to reach their potential as engaged citizens. GC looks forward to collaborating with the Administration to create and implement an Action Civics curriculum that will expose youth to civic engagement experiences that will motivate them to become lifelong active citizens, as well as develop professional development modules to prepare teachers to support student-led nonpartisan advocacy projects in the classroom.

We appreciate the Council’s investment in GC’s Democracy Coach program model to allow GC to expand its impact and ensure that the next generation of New Yorkers develops the civic knowledge, skills, and dispositions necessary for them to become active and engaged stewards of our democracy for the long-term, as well as have near-peer mentors in the classroom. I will now ask Emily Larcher, alumni of GC’s Action Civics and, Community Change Fellowship programs, and current member of the GC Student Leadership Board to share her perspective about how Action Civics can empower young people to become more civically engaged.

Thank you and the Committee for your consideration of this testimony and I would be happy to answer any questions that you may have.