Brian Chilson
Arkansas State Capitol

When I was appointed to the Arkansas State Board of Education soon after I began writing for the Arkansas Times, I made a deal with editor Lindsey Millar: I’d continue my column-writing but stay away from those issues related to education policy and politics so as not to corrode my work on the Board. It’s been frustrating, to say the least. But, my departure from the State Board a bit over a week ago means I’m liberated to write about issues I’ve been thinking about a bunch in the past seven years. I’ll try to do so in manageable doses.

As I mentioned in my visit last week with “Rock the Culture” podcast hosts Antwan Phillips and Charles Blake, one issue I left the State Board disappointed not have to have spent more time tackling was reforming civics education in Arkansas. There is little doubt that efforts to better educate students about the workings of the government and how to be an effective, engaged citizen have been sharply deprioritized across the country.

In the years since the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2002, with its focus on testing student performance in math and language skills, the portion of teaching time dedicated to civics material has been reduced. Fewer than one in three schools offers a stand-alone civics course; instead, civics is submerged in a stew of material operating under the title of “social studies.” According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, less than one-fourth of the nation’s 8th and 12th graders are proficient in civics achievement in the latest gauge of performance. While my experience as a professor of American politics is more anecdotal, over the years I have seen a growing chasm between “haves” and “have nots” on civics knowledge when students arrive at college with some students showing a real depth of thinking about issues of government but many more lacking an even superficial understanding of its core tenets.

According to national analysts of the quality of civics standards, Arkansas is neither particularly strong nor weak in the teaching of civics knowledge and civics engagement. In recent years, Arkansas has taken a step forward and two major steps back on civics education. The positive step is that, like about half of states, Arkansas has embraced the College, Career, and Civic Life (C3) Framework for Social Studies State Standards. These so-called “C3” standards do mark a noticeable ratcheting up in the quality of both civic knowledge as well as the thoughtful application of that knowledge beyond the classroom. However, while the frameworks are good, very few new efforts were dedicated to the sort of professional development that would activate a fulsome embrace of the standards by teachers in Arkansas.

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Other trends are more problematic. First, particularly in schools with low test scores, social science education is now increasingly merged with “literacy” training in the middle grades. That is, students are reading social science content but the real focus is on the honing of literacy skills rather than deep analysis of social scientific thinking, much less civics work. Second, the legislature’s 2017 mandate that all the state’s students must pass a standardized test incorporating the elements of the US citizenship exam before graduation means that more time is dedicated to student memorization of answers on that high-stakes exam rather than deep thinking about the functioning of government and how students can grow into better citizens.

Unquestionably, there are fantastic, creative teachers of civics in schools across the state. But, if we are to transform the teaching of civics in Arkansas, we have to be more systematic in our approach, as a handful of other states have. For Independence Day, “Education Week” dove into the states that are leading the pack on civics education reform.

A few elements of successful civics education reform bubble up out of these states’ efforts:

First, as in Florida, rather than waiting until high school, there must be an explicit embrace of civics in the earlier grades so that students have tools to work with in their later years of schooling.

Second, as we discussed on the podcast, the later in a student’s high school career that formal education about civics takes place, the greater the ability to connect that content to the real world, such as voting, thus enhancing its relevance.

Third, there must be some infrastructure — either inside or outside the state education bureaucracy — dedicated to developing high-quality educational materials and providing innovative teacher training in civics. That work doesn’t happen on the cheap.

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Fourth, civics cannot be taught in the vacuum of a classroom. It must be brought to life through engagement in student’s communities in which they see the connection between the theory and practice of democracy and consciously reflect on their own skills and talents in the civic arena.  Massachusetts’ new requirement that both middle and high school students complete at least one “action civics” project in which they work to respond to one challenge facing their community is the most exciting effort in this area.

It’s vital to remember that public education initially came into existence in the United States because of the awareness that everyone needed to be prepared for the duties of citizenship in a representative democracy. As Virginian Thomas Jefferson, the first major advocate for a public investment in basic education, put it: “Educate and inform the whole mass of the people. … They are the only sure reliance for the preservation of our liberty.” Closer to home, Arkansas’s Constitutional commitment to free public education is grounded in the notion that “intelligence and virtue [are] the safeguards of liberty and the bulwark of a free and good government.” If we care about saving liberty, it’s time to rededicate ourselves to educating all students to be thoughtful and engaged citizens.