Creating Meaningful Civic Participation and Effective Civic Leaders

Posted by Sanda Balaban on October 16, 2013

One thing I’ve spent time reflecting on in the past is how I want to frame Social Studies in general to my students. What is the theme that I want them to focus on throughout the year? After going to this Facing History seminar, I think that I want to frame history as a series of human choices that were made. The idea of choice is something that I hadn’t considered before, and this seminar really put that in focus for me.”--Michael Diamente, Facing History 2012 Summer Seminar participant

We live in a more diverse and dynamic society than ever, and the future will only be increasingly so. To ensure that the citizens and leaders of tomorrow can grapple with the challenges and opportunities this creates, we must equip young people with the skills to engage with complexity and make choices and decisions that will enable them to thrive.

Unfortunately, too few students are being exposed to high-quality civic learning opportunities that enable them to master such knowledge and moral dispositions. At a time when our nation is confronting some of the more difficult decisions it has faced in a long time (government shutdown, anyone?), the lack of high-quality civic education in America’s schools leaves millions of citizens without the ability to make sense of our system of government or to strive to improve it. According to the most recent National Center for Educational Statistics’ Report Card, the data is damning and daunting:

  • In civics, only a quarter of U.S. students score proficient or better on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP.)
  • Only one-third of Americans could name all three branches of government; one-third couldn’t name any. Fewer than a third of eighth graders could identify the historical purpose of the Declaration of Independence.

Poverty compounds the situation:

  • Young high school dropouts living in poverty are 23 times less likely to vote than other adults--in 2010, fewer than four in 100 of those dropouts voted.

Beyond the widely-discussed academic achievement gap, there is an equally troubling, less-discussed “civic empowerment gap” between students of different races and socio-economic and immigration status, which Meira Levinson explores powerfully in No Citizen Left Behind (Harvard University Press, 2012). This gap has a meaningful effect on the more-documented one: research from The Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) shows that youth who have civic learning opportunities are more likely to follow a positive academic trajectory like staying in school and preparing for college. In her book, Levinson demonstrates that poor, non-white students demonstrate lower levels of civic and political knowledge, skills, positive attitudes toward the state, and participation than their wealthier and whiter counterparts.

The dividends on bolstering students’ civic engagement are great:

  • Students who receive both traditional and interactive civics score highest on assessments and demonstrate high levels of 21st century skills such as critical thinking, news comprehension, and work ethic.
  • ETS' Civic Engagement Index demonstrates that the more education individuals attain, the greater the level of civic engagement they demonstrate—nearly seven times higher for adults with a master's degree or higher and a family income of $100K than for high school dropouts.

Facing History has long realized that academic and civic learning are synergistic. Teachers use Facing History curriculum and pedagogy to promote students’ self-identification as global citizens who can and do act responsibly in an increasingly interconnected world. The Facing History approach draws upon historical lessons to emphasize advanced reading, writing, critical thinking, and media literacy skills that extend beyond typical social studies and English language arts content into multiple academic and civic spheres. Facing History teachers use specific moments in time to teach students to reflect on their own lives.

Facing History fosters complex conversations in the classroom and beyond about how issues of identity, ethnicity, and intolerance impact lives and communities today. Historical case studies enable students to compare and contrast history and current events. Students begin to recognize their own roles and responsibilities in creating positive change in society, and to develop critical tools for thriving in the twenty-first century.

What’s exciting is that we can concretely substantiate the impact that this work has on students. Multiple evaluations demonstrate that engagement in Facing History yields statistically significant gains in civic learning. Foremost among these analyses is Facing History’s randomized-control National Evaluation Study, which demonstrates that students who take Facing History outperform other students on five civic learning outcomes:

  • civic efficacy
  • valuing the protection of civil liberties of people with different political views
  • awareness of the dangers of prejudice and discrimination
  • positive perceptions of their history or English class as offering opportunities to engage with civic matters
  • creating a safe, inclusive, respectful climate.

Further, Facing History is proud to be cited as one of six proven practices in civic learning cited by the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools in their recent Guardian of Democracy: The Civic Mission of Schools report.

Students confront moral and ethical decisions each day. They benefit from civic education which enables students to rigorously examine history as the result of choices made and neglected by individuals and groups. Through integrating analysis, emotional engagement, and ethical judgment in reflections and conversations about the individual and collective actions that have shaped history, young people can forge personal commitment to building a future very different from the past.

How are YOU supporting students in cultivating responsible decision-making and informed participation in society? What are your favorite examples of this within your classroom or community?

Topics: Critical Thinking

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