Reflections on Civics Education: What I’ve learned about the power of engagement

By Meghan Volcy, Project Coordinator, The Rennie Center for Education Research & Policy

With less than a week until the 2020 election, Rennie's Meghan Volcy takes a close look at the history and current state of civics education, examines the importance of giving young people the tools to engage in the democratic process, and reflects on her own journey in civic engagement.

I did not have access to a formal civics class when I was in school, but I’m sure if I had, it would have given English a run for its money in the competition for my favorite class. Though I didn't start my civic education journey until well after high school, I’ve been making up for lost time.

After attending college in Boston, I remained on campus for the summer after graduation to manage a community service program that organized service education opportunities in surrounding communities, including my own hometown of Malden. I felt confident in my knowledge of my city and its public affairs while I held that position; however, when I moved back to Malden last September, I found myself in a place I barely recognized. I felt familiarity when revisiting certain parks and pizza places, but I felt like a visitor when passing new apartment complexes and businesses. In search of answers, I turned to civics.

Several elections were taking place at the local level and it was at debates and city meetings where I began to feel at home again. Exploring the spectrum of civic engagement (volunteering and substitute teaching at my old K-8 school, applying to serve on a city commission) and feeling like I have a stake in where I live has made me feel more connected to my home than I have in years. In the last seven months, when I have felt the most powerless and frustrated, I have found a surge of hope in civic engagement and civic education—working at the polls, holding elected officials accountable, bringing awareness to opportunities to engage, marching shoulder to shoulder for racial justice, and of course, casting my vote.

Similar to my civic journey, every person would benefit from resources, empowerment, and education to engage in their communities. Young people, in particular, deserve quality civic education and access to opportunities for civic empowerment, and any of us who claim to have a stake in children’s growth and development owe them this through conversations about social justice, service learning opportunities, and purposeful lessons about how politics affect everyday life. According to “High Quality Civic Education: What Is It and Who Gets It?” civic education not only “explicitly teaches the knowledge, skills, and values believed necessary for democratic citizenship,” but it also prepares young people for everyday interactions at work, school, and home.

The History and State of Civics Education
Since the 1960s, American education has undergone many policy and priority shifts, including a shift away from “skills, knowledge, and thinking specific to civic participation and deliberation” (Kahne & Middaugh, 2008). For instance, emphasis on and required assessments in math, English language arts, and science have put pressure on districts to spend significantly less time on civics education. The alarming decline in the presence of civics education in schools has been accompanied by an even more alarming low voter turnout rate, seen in how youth voter turnout decreased from 50% to 39% from 1972 to 2016. A disheartening lack of education in civic skills and empowerment deprives young people of a comprehensive educational experience, tools to connect with their communities in a meaningful way, and opportunities to further develop agency in their lives.

To address this shortcoming in the Massachusetts education system, An Act to promote and enhance civic engagement was signed into law in 2018. Among other things, the law requires public schools to provide “at least one student-led, non-partisan civics project” in middle school and another in high school. But while this law is an important step, more thoughtful planning about the types of civic education that students experience is necessary in order to maximize its benefits for all students.

Why does it matter?
According to the Center for American Progress, states that prioritize civics courses tend to have the highest rates of civic engagement among youth. The decline in civics education is correlated with a decline in civic participation, and without an engaged electorate, the policies we live under will not be responsive to the needs of all—and they will further the inequities that persist in our world.

Not only is civic education—and the skills and empowerment that come with it—important as students and young people develop agency and become contributing citizens in society, civic skills also have a direct connection to those needed to succeed in postsecondary life. There is considerable overlap between civic skills and skills required for employment, as there is a correlation between having a high-quality civics education and twenty-first-century competencies. The Harvard Business Review report “The Business Case for Civics Education” uses quantitative and qualitative research to bring light to the fact that workplaces desire and benefit from employees who possess emotional intelligence, are empathetic, debate, engage with their surroundings, understand political processes, and understand, respect, and work with diverse groups of people and perspectives—all of which are civics skills.

The decline of civic education in the classroom particularly affects young people and students of color. Similar to the well-known achievement gap in education, there is also a striking civic engagement gap between non-white, less affluent, less-educated and/or immigrant youth and their whiter, more affluent, college-educated counterparts. Without a quality civics education, marginalized students are losing one of strongest avenues to personal and civic empowerment, and are further relegated to the margins of public discourse and policymaking. According to “The Engagement Gap”, these gaps start at a young age, as upper-middle-class children are being "groomed—through private investment and cultivation—to thrive in the competitive, knowledge-based economy that they will inherit" and will "enter adulthood as practiced citizens ready to participate in democracy and to collaborate with others," while their working-class peers remain unable to access social mobility. This gap is aggravated by a valid historical mistrust among marginalized people in government systems and officials, who have long dismissed their needs people—or worse, targeted them with harmful policies. This failure of institutions and systems worsens societal inequities that we see every day and perpetuates a cycle of young people not knowing how to use or not believing in the system as a viable path to change and being written off as apathetic by elected officials not responding to their needs.

However, it is important to note that there is no correlation between lack of civic engagement opportunities and lack of interest. There are young people of color across the country and across the world creating space for themselves and people who look like them every day. Young people are organizing marches, running for office, and leveraging their collective power to effect change, whether or not institutions like schools or governments are supporting them in doing so. We must center marginalized populations in civic education efforts and acknowledge how civic life has failed them. With culturally responsive civics and history courses, marginalized students can see the historical playing field and know how to better take action in the interest of a more equitable society.

What Can We Do?
It is important to remember that incorporating civics education will not take time away from literacy and math. Civics can be incorporated into any and every subject! For example, English classes can read and analyze political texts, foreign language classes can incorporate comparative political analysis or conversations about immigration, science classes can address environmental ethics and global warming, and math classes can use election examples to engage students in statistics or create localized lesson plans about eligibility for free and reduced price lunch. Schools don’t have to do this alone. Organizations such as Generation Citizen, Teaching Tolerance, and Discovering Justice partner with schools and provide resources for a robust civics curriculum, including resources that can be applied in a remote learning environment.

Service learning can be incorporated into curriculum in a mutually beneficial way where students can engage in community service and staff from community partners can come to schools and speak to students directly. Outside of the classroom, students can create school councils or other governing bodies and host voter pre-registration/registration drives, and educators and administrators can support them as they do so.

However, it is not only the responsibility for schools to provide civic education, as there are young people who are not in school who deserve pathways to civic engagement and education as well. Municipal governments, community organizations, and businesses can also use their resources and power to support civic engagement. For example, according to a recent report, there will be a vacuum of jobs in the public sector as older and whiter staff prepare to retire, creating a critical opportunity to diversify the public sector with capable and passionate young people who better reflect the increasing diversity of the area. But for this to be accomplished, young people need to be supported in learning about and pursuing this work.

In my experience substitute teaching at the 8th grade level, I’ve assisted in a couple of Social Studies classes. I have a distinct memory of one class where groups were presenting on different civics topics. Outside of the academic motivation, it was clear that they were passionate about issues relevant to them, like data security and lowering the voting age to 16. This was a moving moment for me, seeing students get the civics education I so craved in the same seats I used to fill not so long ago.

As the recent state civic education law takes root, I hope the long-term effects will produce critical lessons for all of us to learn from and apply more broadly about what constitutes effective and equity-centered civic education. Yet, in the meantime, there is much we can do. In the last few years, in place of the downward trend in youth voting seen through 2016, youth voter turnout has soared—and it does not seem to show any signs of slowing. We are just one week away from one of the most important elections in many of our lifetimes, and it is crucial that we all do what is in our locus of control to support youth participation in a free and fair election.

We can ensure that we and the young people in our lives who are eligible to vote have a plan to do so – either by mail or by mask. With the expanded access to voting by mail passed this year amid the COVID-19 pandemic, young people should know where to request their ballot (by October 28), where they can drop it off (via mail, drop box, or bringing it directly to the election department), by when (postmarked by November 3), and how to track it to ensure that it has been counted. If voting by mask, young people need to know when they are to vote (either the Early Voting period from October 17th-30th or on election day on November 3rd), what they’re voting on and where, and how to do so safely.

We should also be encouraging the young people in our lives to work at the polls as translators or clerks –young people can participate in democracy not only by casting a vote, but also by ensuring that others can do so as well. Plus, it’s a lot of fun, if I do say so myself. And as for the young people in our lives who are not yet able to vote, we can advance the work of Growing Voters by getting young people preregistered or excited to vote, engaging them in political conversation, and uplifting their voices as they participate and lead in overcoming societal injustices.

I write this to you as a young, Black woman who believes a better society is attainable, and in our reach. To silence young people’s voices and not support them—or rather, to not support us—in our civic education and to write us off as apathetic in the same breath is unproductive and tired. Our voices need to be respected and uplifted, and we need to be seen for who we really are: not just a serious voting bloc, but more importantly, people growing up in a world imperiled by issues like climate change, food insecurity, racial inequality, threats to democracy, educational inequity, social security, housing, and much more. Our world is in a precarious place, and we need the empowerment, the tools, and the civic education to salvage it.



The State of Civics Education

Civic Engagement and the Disadvantaged: Challenges, Opportunities and Recommendations

Critical consciousness: A key to student achievement

Latino Education, Civic Engagement, and the Public Good

Unequal Voices: Who Speaks for California Part II

Our Identities as Civic Power: State of Native Youth Report

Mitigating Barriers to Civic Engagement for Low-Income, Minority Youth Ages 13-18: Best Practices from Environmental Youth Conferences

That's Not Democracy: How Out-of-School Youth Engage in Civic Live & What Stands in Their Way

Civics for All Seattle K-12 Initiative

The Business Case for Civics Education

Guardian of Democracy: The Civic Mission of Schools

Teaching Democracy: What Schools Need to Do

Will It Ever Be Possible to Get Out the Youth Vote

iCivics Cast Your Vote Game

How to Reach Young Voters When They’re Stuck at Home

Teaching for Democracy Alliance Checklist

How Should I Vote 2020