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The Civics Education and Social Justice Imperative

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Dwight Vick
January 11, 2020

In my previous PA TIMES columns, I wrote that public administrators are calloused from a nearly four decade onslaught against us and our profession. We point fingers toward the problem—a citizen, a fellow colleague or another agency—without examining those three fingers pointed back at us. Our responsibility as public servants requires us to identify need and report wrongdoing.  Yet that same responsibility demands that we, as public servants and citizens, understand the rights and responsibilities of those we serve and the cultures of their communities. These transcend city limits, state lines, even international boundaries. At no time in the modern era have we been in greater need of civics education and social justice awareness. Three groups of street-level bureaucrats lead the current effort: K-12 teachers, school librarians and judges. At no time have they needed our profession’s collective and intergovernmental support more than now.

Our education and information management brethren help to lessen the crisis in civics education and social justice. By working with communities and state departments, teachers and librarians respond like our emergency management colleagues do at fires, accidents and medical situations. These unheralded groups lead our profession by implementing civics education through well-meaning assigned volunteerism. Yet as community service projects increase civic, social and justice awareness, teachers and librarians encounter resistance as schools focus on the national call for math and science courses, limiting their ability to emphasize socio-political understanding.  Math and science are paramount to our future, but not at the expense of civic education and social awareness. Some programs build classroom instruction in government, history, law and democracy through discussion of current issues, service learning and simulations of civic structures and processes. These build the students’ voice. They help to build a strong seawall to stem the high tide of ignorance.  

What constitutes a high quality civics and social justice curriculum?  Brookings recently reported that it provides students with civic knowledge, skills and dispositions that equip them to participate in American democracy. Characteristics include classroom instruction in civics, government, history, law, economics and geography; discussion of current events; service learning; extracurricular activities; student participation in school governance; simulations of democratic processes and procedures; news media literacy; action civics; social-emotional learning; and school climate reform.

Several states have implemented model programs that promote the types of civics education and youth engagement referenced in the Brookings report. Colorado and Idaho high school students must complete one year of civics and government. The curriculum requires discussion about the origins of democracy, structure of American government, public participation and comparative government, plus the rights and responsibilities of citizenship. Colorado’s Department of Education provides content, guiding questions, key skills and vocabulary as guidance for teachers.  The state also has implemented “Judicially Speaking,” where local judges teach students how they think through civics when making decisions. Colorado’s efforts are seen to have contributed to youth participation and volunteerism rates that exceed the national average.

Houston-area public charter schools have implemented the Youth Engaged in Service (YES) program, which requires students to fulfill service learning projects that develop leadership skills, complete an ethics course and connect civics to experiential learning. In Washington, DC, a program provided by the Cesar Chavez Public Charter Schools for Public Policy teaches 1,200 students to see themselves as change agents by completing an advocacy project in an area of interest. The students brainstorm solutions to local and global problems that demand change.

Generation Citizen, a nonprofit organization, teaches civics to more than 30,000 middle and high school students. Its detailed curricula allow for real-world engagement on issues that impact the students, with teachers helping them to research the cause, develop an action plan and solve it.  Offered by the Southern Poverty Law Center, Teaching Tolerance provides free materials to teachers and students to emphasize social justice in school curricula, which treats tolerance as a core American value. Working with teachers, students apply civics in real-world situations. Like the Colorado curricula, Teaching Tolerance teaches rights, responsibilities and service. Students are required to research the underlying causes of these issues and take action.

Yet much more is required. The Brookings report found that 42 states and the District of Columbia have some classroom instruction, knowledge building and discussion based activity. Yet only 26 states simulate the democratic process and only 11 include service learning. Absent high quality civics education, students graduate with an incomplete knowledge about government in practice. These findings support a 2016 Annenberg Public Policy Center study, which found that 26 percent of Americans can name all three branches of government, while 23 percent of eighth graders passed the National Assessment of Educational Progress civics examination. As the Center for American Progress determined, states that require civics education tended to have higher youth voter participation and volunteerism rates. 

Some K-12 teachers who integrate civics education in their curricula collaborate with school librarians to ensure that students can research topics of interest and find solutions. Local judges visit classrooms to discuss the importance of civic participation. Some states and nonprofit agencies provide excellent curricula that teach rights and responsibilities, giving voice to social ills and recommending options for change. It is time for us—the social worker, city clerk, college professor, police officer, department head, local and state elected official—to join them in teaching our youth, and ourselves, about civics, social justice and community awareness. When public administrators join this conversation, citizens will see and know that we are part of the collective, with the same hopes and plans to model civic and social responsibility. 

Intergovernmental cooperation is imperative to not only cross boundary lines but occupational ones, as well. We must join those street-level providers in this effort. We must focus on the answers that come from pointing three fingers rather than the problems pointed out by one. 

It is time.


Author: Dwight Vick has been an ASPA member since 1993 and has been a contributor to PA TIMES since 2015. He can be reached at [email protected]

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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