Civics instruction supports public health and safety
(Calif.) There’s a problem in California when it comes to civic participation and many experts agree that one of the best places to start turning that around is in public school classrooms.
But there are also barriers to fully incorporating quality civics education into the K-12 curriculum, not the least of which are time and money.
“I realize it’s a big challenge to consider changing these two factors – that it would be hard to mandate civic education in California and to work out all the interests and concerns – but we should try,” Kim Alexander, president of the California Voter Foundation, told the Assembly Select Committee on Civic Engagement Tuesday morning.
Referencing recent acts of violence, from the terrorist attacks in Paris to shootings at a Colorado Planned Parenthood and a southern California developmental disabilities center, Alexander said the perpetrators of those crimes all had one thing in common: They chose not to express their opinions in a civil way but in a violent way.
“Civic engagement isn’t just a nicety. It’s a matter of public safety and public health,” she said. “There should be funding built into the budget to give schools incentive to teach civic engagement.”
While there is a clear question whether civics education would have had any impact on those recent criminal acts, there is evidence that students who learn about and participate in government and community service while in school tend to continue doing so into adulthood.
With record-low voter turnout at the California polls in 2014, state officials and public service advocates attending Tuesday’s hearing said the state is in “a little bit of a crisis mode” in terms of voter participation.
Just 31 percent of eligible voters cast ballots in the November 2014 general election, meaning 16 million citizens chose not to participate, according to James Schwab of the California Secretary of State’s office. Even in 2008 – an election which drew one of the highest rates of voters to the polls, said Schwab, 10 million eligible citizens still did not vote.
Lawmakers, state officials and advocates have all taken steps recently to create incentives for people to vote, or to break down barriers that keep people from voting, such as approving online voter registration, creating community awareness campaigns and allowing California’s two million service veterans to publicly dedicate their vote to a friend or family member. Both the Secretary of State’s Office and several non-profit groups are working to provide easy-to-understand online election information as well.
But those things might not be enough if people don’t understand how government works. Or, perhaps worse, are cynical about the process or feel that the issues don’t directly impact them.
“If we don’t teach people how to make informed decisions in the first place, and how to hold politicians accountable, then all the information made available is not going to help,” said Alexander.
There are programs designed to teach students about – and involve them in – civic participation, such as the Constitutional Rights Foundation’s Mock Trial Program, in which about 8,000 students participate annually.
An award program, co-sponsored by the California Department of Education and Chief Justice Tani G. Cantil-Sakauye, recognizes schools that successfully engage students in civic learning and identifies them as successful models that can be replicated in other schools.
Schwab said the Secretary of State’s Office, along with CDE, is “relaunching” the California Student Mock Election, which can be used to involve students as young as fourth grade in the issues and choices on a statewide ballot. And, he noted, his office – led by former state Sen. Alex Padilla – plans to push legislation this year that would allow districts to collect average daily attendance funding for pupils who want to participate in a state program that allows them to volunteer as poll workers on Election Day.
Members of the California Task Force on K-12 Civic Learning, convened by CDE and Cantil-Sakauye’s office, referenced their 2014 report, “Revitalizing K-12 Civic Learning in California: A Blueprint for Action,” as a guide for steps that should be taken to improve civic education in the state’s schools.
Among the panel’s recommendations:
- Revise the California History-Social Science Content Standards and accompanying curriculum frameworks to incorporate an emphasis on civic learning, starting in kindergarten, so all students acquire the civic knowledge, skills and values they need to succeed in college, career and civic life.
- Integrate civic learning into state assessment and accountability systems for students, schools and districts. Civic knowledge, skills, values and whether students are receiving learning opportunities that promote these outcomes must be assessed and linked to the revised content standards and relevant Common Core State Standards. This will enable periodic reporting to the legislature and the public on the state of students’ civic learning.
- Improve professional learning experiences for teachers and administrators to help them implement civic learning in schools.
- Develop an articulated sequence of instruction in civic learning across all of K-12, pegged to revised standards. At each grade level, civic learning should draw on the research-based Six Proven Practices and include work that is action-oriented and project-based and that develops digital literacy.
- Establish a communication mechanism so community stakeholders can easily connect with teachers and students on civic education and engagement. Students need to get out of the school building to practice civic engagement, and civic leaders need to come into schools to engage students.
- Provide incentives for local school districts to fund civic learning in Local Control Accountability Plans under the new LCFF.