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Why Civics Needs a Spotlight Right Now

Louise Dubé, Executive Director iCivics

Susan Griffin, former Executive Director NCSS

With the passage of the new Every Student Succeeds Act, this past year has seen tremendous movement on the road to helping American students reclaim the competitive edge they will need to engage in the 21st Century job market.

Much of the focus has been on STEM subjects and 21st Century literacy skills. While these are critical subjects and skills, we must not emphasize them to the detriment of other core subjects -- such as the social studies, the humanities, and the arts -- which equip students with the skills they need to navigate and make sense of the complex and competitive world in which they live. Likewise, these young people must have a robust civic education in order to reinvigorate and maintain our democratic system.  

As school districts across the country work to determine how best to benefit their students through ESSA, we’re calling on stakeholders to renew their emphasis on social studies, the  humanities, the arts, and civics, and to prioritize support for a full array of school subjects. When offered together, these subjects complement each other and ensure that every student receives a well-rounded education.

In recent years, over many reform efforts, we have tried to define those skills that will produce the kind of citizens and workers we need for our country to thrive. It’s become clear that the answer is not confined to one discipline. It is not math, or reading or science. It is not even the social studies. It is all of these . Social studies in particular provides students with the content knowledge, intellectual skills, and civic dispositions to participate effectively in our democracy. And we know that we need students who can think deeply about very complex issues. That is the world our students are inheriting.  

Research has established that content knowledge, opportunities to apply that knowledge through simulations and real-world problem solving, and practice at discussing controversial issues through thoughtful listening and civil discourse, all prepare and predispose students for effective participation in further education, careers, and civic life. A high-quality, well-rounded education provides the context, the issues, the real world application that students need.

In April, the U.S. Department of Education issued a “Dear Colleague” letter to schools, districts, and state agencies to guide them on how to maximize federal funds to support and enhance innovative science, technology, engineering, and math education for all students.  

We are pleased to report that last month the Department issued a “Dear Colleague” to these same audiences providing guidance for accessing federal funds to support social studies, humanities, the arts, and career and technical education.  It is in this light that we are asking schools, districts, states, teachers and parents to utilize ESSA to align funding with our instructional goals so that we can ensure a well-rounded education beyond STEM and ELA.

Unfortunately, the path to supporting the social studies, the humanities, and the arts is not always as straightforward as it is for STEM and ELA. Just as we  try to stir students by giving them creative outlets through the social studies, the humanities, and the arts, we now urge    state educational agencies, local educational agencies, schools, and other stakeholders to be creative and intentional in  determining how to maximize federal funds to support these core subjects. 

Federal resources are surely available, but in order to maximize the impact of these resources, it is often necessary to leverage various sources of support. For example, we need to look to at how schools can use federal funds to purchase humanities-focused materials, devices, or digital learning resources to improve learning outcomes among low-achieving students; how they can provide professional development in the humanities; and how public money can be used to purchase supplemental, humanities-focused resources specifically developed for English language learners. 

Beyond that, there is a wealth of opportunity for other public or private entities to provide students with learning moments outside of school hours to engage in authentic, humanities-focused content that aligns with their school day and focuses on hands-on, richly-meaningful experiences. 

Just take civics. Practically, here are some examples of how these funds can be used:

  • We know there are many high-quality print resources that make civics come alive, and that schools can purchase these materials that make civic knowledge and skills relevant to students. 
  • We know that our educators need guidance to teach controversial issues, including this presidential  election, and that several high- quality programs offer effective professional development training to prepare educators.
  • We know that our students are thirsty to go on field trips to experience what government or the law look like in real life.
  • We know that they need digital experiences where they can gain a systemic understanding of processes that they could not gain any other way.
  • And we know that many great programs offer opportunities for action civics where students can apply civics to solve problems in their communities. 

This roadmap can be followed throughout all of the subjects comprising the social studies.

We encourage all stakeholders -- from schools to school boards and from teachers to concerned parents -- to become our partners in helping to create a strong foundation through which our students can grow. And we invite you to look through our new ESSA guidelines to find the right fit for your school and your community.