With less than a month before a pivotal presidential election, democracy is on every educator’s mind. To shine new light on what civic engagement can look like today — and on the role of education in promoting healthy democracy — three new leaders in American civic education came together on Wednesday, October 14, in the latest installment of HGSE’s Education Now, a series of webinars seeking to address the unique challenges facing educators today.
Amber Coleman-Mortley, director of social engagement at iCivics; Noorya Hayat, Ed.M.’15, a civic engagement and equity researcher at CIRCLE at Tufts University; and Jessica Lander, Ed.M.’15, teacher and cofounder of We Are America were hosted by Senior Lecturer Richard Weissbourd, director of Making Caring Common, for the remote discussion which focused on the urgency with which educators must approach civics education. As Weissbourd said in his introduction, “Democracy is on the ballot.”
Throughout, participants outlined practical strategies for rethinking civics education and promoting equity.
Takeaways for Teachers and Parents
- Let young people take the lead. “The future of civic engagement should be student led,” said Coleman-Mortley. Teachers and parents should make space for student activism through project-based learning, games, simulations, and even through simply going out into the community. “The role of adults is to facilitate that space, serve as a resource hub, connect students with the levers of power, and get out of the way – we love to feel in control, but we need to allow the process to unfold organically,” Coleman-Mortley explained. Only when we trust in youth leadership can true civic engagement begin.
- Expand your teaching. Don’t just teach civic knowledge – teach “action civics,” said Lander. Beyond lecturing on the branches of government, educators need to ask, “what concrete skills do my students need to make change in the community?” In addition to civics knowledge, educators should focus on teaching civic skills, civic motivation, and civic efficacy — a student’s ability to see himself as a maker of change.
- Stay local. Students are eager to engage in the issues they care about, but “it has got to be local and action-oriented,” explained Lander. Focusing on the issues young people see every day, the issues in their communities, keeps things concrete. In addition, explained Hayat, it fights cynicism. “Kids might be cynical about national politics, but they care about community issues,” she explained. Connecting to the local will prepare students to tackle issues on a small and large scale.
- Advocate for structural change. Civic education has declined as a result of the focus on other subjects, like STEM. This is beginning to change — legislation mandating state-wide civic initiatives was recently passed in Massachusetts and Illinois — but high- quality, equitable civics standards need to be adopted everywhere. Joining this fight can lead to large-scale change.
The panelists agreed: Democracy matters, to young people and adults. Bringing the voices, lived experiences, and communities of young people into the civics conversation can lead to concrete engagement and powerful change. In today’s turbulent reality, where students are persevering remotely despite political vitriol, the increased visibility of racialized violence, and the challenges of COVID-19, finding strength and value in our shared democracy is more important than ever.
Strengthen the ecosystem for equitable K–12 civic learning: Civic education and civic educators can’t exist in a vacuum in the school. They are part of the ecosystem of K–12 education that directly connects to parents and communities. This also includes local community organizations and non-profits working with youth, culture and arts organizations, local media and newspaper, faith-based institutions and congregations, and local policymakers among many other institutions. For equitable access to civic learning of all students, we need to strengthen the connections and trust among institutions to support students’ holistic civic development and identity.
Support access and awareness for the youth vote: Young people are not apathetic when it comes to civic and political engagement but face systemic challenges to voting. In 2018, young people (ages 18–24) recorded the highest midterm youth turnout in decades. What young people need is outreach and awareness on how to connect their commitment to social change in their communities to casting a ballot. That is, youth need information, both related to their reason and motivation to vote (i.e. on issues, candidates) and how to register and vote.
On Civic Education and Teaching for Democracy:
- CIRCLE resources for equitable K-12 Civic learning
- Teaching For Democracy Alliance: A national alliance working to strengthen student learning about elections and informed voting that is coordinated by CIRCLE at Tisch College of Civic Life, Tufts University
- All Together Now: Collaboration and Innovation for Youth Engagement: In 2012, CIRCLE convened a scholarly, non-partisan commission to investigate data on young Americans’ civic knowledge and participation, and to issue recommendations for how to improve both. The commission was formed in response to controversies about then-recent voting laws (such as photo-ID laws), as well as extant debates about civic education in K-12 schools and in higher education. However, in light of the myriad interconnected conditions and influences on young people’s civic knowledge and participation, the commission took a broader view, and its recommendations touch on a range of issues across the field of civic education and engagement broadly defined.
On Youth Civic Engagement:
- CIRCLE’s exclusive data tool, Youth Voting and Civic Engagement in America, offers a unique way to explore the relationships between voting and other forms of civic participation, and some of the conditions that shape such engagement. The tool features more than 40 unique indicators, and it includes data at the national, state, congressional district, and county levels
- CIRCLE’s RAYSE Index: CIRCLE is committed to helping organizations and governments use research to improve civic life and close gaps in opportunities for civic engagement. This is why we developed the RAYSE Index (Reaching All Youth Strengthens Engagement). The RAYSE Index provides county-level data on factors and conditions that we know correlate with civic engagement. It brings data to bear on efforts to broaden access to youth engagement opportunities: it can provide research-based support for making the case that engagement has a high potential for growth, and for making decisions about where to invest resources (e.g. time, resources, funding).
- CIRCLE’s Youth Electoral Significance Index (YESI) is a valuable tool for any individual, campaign, organization, or institution that seeks to increase youth political engagement. The index provides a data-driven ranking of the top 10 Senate and top 10 House races where young voters have the highest potential to influence the results of 2020 elections, as well as the top 10 states where youth could determine the outcome of the presidential race.