The past eighteen months have been some of the most tumultuous in the history of our nation. The twin pandemics of Covid-19 and social injustice have highlighted how today’s students face very different expectations than students encountered in previous generations. In 2021, new graduates need to engage in diverse communities, appreciate the workings of a global economy, solve complex and changing problems, and navigate new technologies. Given the widespread use of social media, we need young Americans to be wise consumers of information, engaged citizens, and advocates for their beliefs. And all of this comes in the face of substantial economic disparities, job and food insecurity, and the increasing fragility of our democracy.
It is no surprise then that many are making a case for refreshing the teaching and learning of civics and U.S. history in K–12 education. Fordham’s new report, The State of State Standards for Civics and U.S. History in 2021, which compares state standards that typically govern the development of civics curricula and textbooks, is a tool to help guide that transformation. The recommendations included in the report make it clear that democracy is not merely to be studied. We know from brain science that hands-on learning and lived experiences help ideas stick. Competencies such as critical thinking, historical analysis, and problem solving—all prevalent in what we at the Hewlett Foundation sometime call “deeper learning”—must be a part of how we build and sustain civic learning for students from a young age.
Suppose today’s students had greater knowledge of and confidence in our democratic institutions. This is what I hope Fordham’s report triggers, assuming we take to heart not only its findings but, more to the point, its recommendations for action. Chief among them is to spend much more time, much earlier in the academic lives of students, on both civics and history. Another, with which I particularly agree, is to put considerably more emphasis on argumentation and problem analysis in making connections to current events. Helping students use what they know to make sense of the world around them and supporting them in thinking through how they make the world a better place is the right aspiration, and we should get to it.
We must also be sure not to underestimate what very young children are capable of learning. Hewlett’s own grantmaking reveals that competencies like critical thinking are determinative in a world where a command of the facts is necessary but not sufficient in preparing young people for work or life. I would even propose going a step further by exploring ways in which the voice of students might be amplified and leveraged in support of their own learning. They can learn about democracy by engaging in it. As such, time spent in school clubs, youth organizations, and other extracurricular activities can, we think, become effective incubators of civic behavior and learning. Our standards for civic learning should reflect this.
If we have learned anything from previous standards-setting or revision efforts, it is that they need to be demonstrably more inclusive. Taking stock of civics standards is a start, but I worry a lot about how unequally civic learning opportunities are distributed across communities and schools. It is something I wish received more attention in the report. Bringing high-quality civics and history standards to life, as has been the case with other standards, will require investment—in new curricula, in professional learning opportunities for educators, and in new forms of assessment.
Nor am I sure where I come out on the matter of specificity versus ambiguity. I take the point that standards should be clear, concise, and, I might add, relatively few in number. But I am less sure if our goal should be to center a given set body of information or to develop fully in today’s students the capacity to grapple with many sets of facts and interpretations of those facts. I think there is a dividend associated with thinking about the challenge as one of shifting from codifying a given body of knowledge to more of a competency-based approach to history and civic learning.
Of course, the very act of choosing the knowledge we want students to know is contentious. We experienced this during heated debates over national history standards in the 1990s, and it is reasonable to expect that we might again have a similar experience, especially given the polarization in our country today. The good news is that the focus of Fordham’s report is on what state (versus national) education officials can do. We should expect there to be legitimate variation in standards in accordance with demographics, geography, and political realities.
In any event, and as this report suggests, it is hard to see how we emerge from our current state of affairs without much improved civic education. Let’s embrace this central theme and get on with this task. Making the case that civic education matters, which the report does, is a good place to start. The report also reminds us that history, as a discipline, is an important component of civic education because it is a natural platform for getting young people to think critically and to place the problems we will need them to solve in context. This, for me, is the essence of deeper learning. Focusing us on the standards that often shape the decisions we make about what to teach and how to teach it may not be the whole ball of wax, but it is a part of the solution. It is in this spirit that I applaud Fordham’s work.