Testimony to NYS Education Commissioner of the Board of Regents

Testimony to be delivered by DeNora Getachew, Executive Director of Generation Citizen, New York to New York State Education Commissioner Elia and Members of the Board of Regents


Re: Civics Education in Draft New York State ESSA Plan
June 6, 2017

Dear Commissioner Elia and Members of the Board of Regents:

Generation Citizen (“GC”) appreciates the opportunity to provide testimony at the public hearing about the impact of the state’s proposed ESSA plan on students’ access to civics education.

Generation Citizen is a seven-year-old national organization that partners with teachers and schools to help them implement a comprehensive, high-quality action civics education program. Our goal is to ensure that every student in the United States gains the knowledge and skills necessary to participate in our democracy as active, lifelong citizens.

This year, thanks to the New York City Council’s $500,000 investment in GC’s program through the Civic Education in New York City Schools Initiative, GC NYC has doubled our program, educating and empowering approximately 3,400 sixth through twelfth graders citywide. GC has educated an additional 6,400 students nationwide through our work in 5 additional sites: Massachusetts; the Bay Area, California; Oklahoma City, Oklahoma; and Central Texas.

America has a civic participation problem. Though this problem has been growing in impact over the last several decades, recent data shows that only 23% 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% 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% of eligible voters cast ballots. Little more than half that percentage cast votes in the 2014 midterms, and in the last New York City mayoral election, in 2013, less than a quarter of registered voters went to the polls. According to the Corporation for National and Community Service, in our broader region, only 5.62% of residents attended a public meeting of any kind in 2015, and only 17.4% of residents volunteered, ranking the NYC/NJ/Long Island metropolitan statistical area (MSA) 49th out of 51 measured.

Indicators of civic knowledge are just as poor. According to a 2011 poll by the Brennan Center for Justice:
● Just 20% of New Yorkers considered themselves “very familiar” with the U.S. Constitution.
● Only two-thirds knew that the President leads the federal government’s executive branch.
● Three out of five were unaware that the legislative branch is responsible for passing laws.

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. Generation Citizen takes the position that an effective action civics education and sustained participation is needed to re-engage young people in the local political system, and to collectively rebuild our democracy.

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” or experiential course differs from reading a textbook. Students learn about democratic structures and processes by engaging directly with them, as well as with each other, to address one or more issues they care about, which are impacting their community. Police accountability, immigration, pedestrian safety, and affordable housing are typical examples of student-led class focus issues.

I share one concrete example from a GC classroom last semester to illustrate our approach. Students in Brooklyn reacted to hit-and-run accidents in their neighborhood by exploring ways to increase pedestrian safety protections around their school. After the students conducted extensive research, the class advocated for pedestrian safety signals to be installed at two intersections near their school. After not receiving a response from the New York City Department of Transportation, their targeted decisionmaker, the class invited their Councilmember to visit their classroom and they presented the Councilmember with persuasive evidence supporting the installation of the signal. Shortly after the semester concluded, the class achieved their goal of adding a pedestrian signal at one of the intersections. Their success was featured in a special news segment on News 12 Brooklyn.

As this example demonstrates, the goal of our program is to effectively guide students to research, analyze, propose, debate, and advocate for their collectively determined solution(s), and in many cases throughout GC’s history, students have fostered meaningful change as a result.

In New York, state education law mandates that before graduation, all students are required to “analyze issues…and prescribe responses that promote the public interest or general welfare, such as planning and carrying out a voter registration campaign.” This requirement is implemented in the Participation in Government (PIG) class, which students usually take during their senior year of high school. The standards expected for PIG require teachers to understand and apply three significant, complementary pedagogies in all classroom-based civic education courses: project-based learning, community-based learning, and problem-based learning. While well-intentioned, teachers receive almost no meaningful resources in learning how to implement the pedagogies necessary to effectively teach PIG, making it effectively an unfunded mandate.

With this backdrop, it’s no wonder then that actual measures of civic engagement and knowledge in New York remain so low. The Every Student Succeeds Act (“ESSA”) provides an opportunity for New York to invest in and prioritize civics education by leveraging Title IV funding for “well rounded learning.” We believe that such funding can, and must be used to fund civics education. The state’s draft ESSA plan does not reference civics and currently does not allocate Title IV resources for the state to implement civics education.

We respectfully urge the Committee to make civics a priority in the final plan. Moreover, we encourage the Committee to specifically allocate Title IV funding to ensure that all schools statewide have the resources necessary to implement PIG effectively and uniformly. Failing to do so only furthers the civic engagement gap plaguing our state’s underserved communities and ensures that the current generation does not develop the civic knowledge, skills, and dispositions necessary for them to become active and engaged stewards of our democracy for the long-term.

I can be reached at dgetachew@generationcitizen.org to answer any questions or to share additional resources to aid the Committee’s consideration of these recommendations.

Thank you,

Denora Getachew
Executive Director of Generation Citizen, New York


Matthew Hamilton, “Capitol Confidential” blog, Times Union, 3/16/2017.
“Speaker Mark Viverito’s 2016 State of the City Address, Remarks as Prepared for Delivery.” New York City Council, 2/11/2016.
Sam Roberts, “New York: Voter Turnout Appears to Be Record Low,” New York Times, 11/5/2013.
Corporation for National & Community Service, “Volunteering and Civic Life in America,” New York-Northern New Jersey-Long Island, NY-NJ-PA (dataset), 2017.
Ibid., “Trends and Highlights Overview”
Excerpted from NYS DOE Learning Standards for Social Studies, Standard 5 — Civics, Citizenship, and Government (http://www.p12.nysed.gov/ciai/socst/documents/sslearn.pdf)