The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

As the election draws near, civics and government teachers walk a fine line

Jenifer Hitchcock, who teaches AP government, has steered clear of partisan accusations and focused on process and responsibilities.
Jenifer Hitchcock, who teaches AP government, has steered clear of partisan accusations and focused on process and responsibilities. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)
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Teaching how elections work in a presidential election year has been a staple of government and civics classes for decades. High school and middle school students watch debates, discuss campaign strategy, explore the voting process and hold mock elections. In a normal year, teachers encourage students to follow the news, look at polls, argue policy positions and even volunteer for a campaign.

But as with everything else in 2020, normal has flown out the window. Facing the toxic maelstrom of the presidential election and many divisive state and local contests, teachers across the country find themselves rethinking how — or even whether — to provide lessons on America’s political selection process.

Some teachers say the races are so outside the bounds of a typical election that they are uncomfortable presenting them to their students as examples of how American democracy functions. Others worry about uttering the wrong word or being misinterpreted and facing backlash from administrators, parents or polarized community members. In a year already blasted by the coronavirus pandemic, job losses and widespread protests for racial justice, teaching about the bitter election battle can feel like a high-wire act over a sea of sharks.

In previous presidential election years, Jenifer Hitchcock would follow a teaching plan that was synchronous with the election and the news around it. 2020 has changed that. This year, she has focused on the process and the responsibilities of elected leaders rather than the often caustic showdowns between the backers of President Trump and former vice president Joe Biden.

“My concerns about the tenor of conversation around the election are impacting that choice, for sure,” said Hitchcock, who teaches AP government at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Fairfax County, Va.

In class, she has steered clear of the steady stream of partisan accusations. And before the first presidential debate between Trump and Biden, Hitchcock told her students they weren’t required to watch it. Many of her students did end up watching the debate and what they gleaned from it, Hitchcock said, was that it was entertainment.

“It’s not real for them anymore, and they recognize that it shouldn’t be that way,” she said. “They know that this is serious. But the way that the conversation happened felt too much like a piece out of the Onion or too much like a ‘Saturday Night Live’ skit. . . . It wasn’t about important issues that my students are passionate about, and they’re passionate about so many different things on both sides of the aisle. And those discussions never made it.”

Michael Martirone, who teaches government at Egg Harbor Township High School in New Jersey, had his students watch the first debate and create a word cloud for it the day after. The word that dominated the screen: chaos.

“I’m pretty proud of our kids. They were able to discuss their differences in a much more civil manner than the debate,” Martirone said. “I think teachers, if they’re teaching it appropriately and correctly, they’ve got their class norms set up where in the class conversation you can disagree without it being, you know, an attack.”

This week, Martirone asked his students to describe how they felt about the election in a single word. The responses poured in: Nervous. Worried. Anxious. Scared. Hopeless. Disappointed. Argh.

On Twitter and in online chats, many social studies and civics teachers have expressed concern that simply teaching about the election will be seen as biased or lead to blowback. Some teachers say privately they’ve been told to avoid teaching the election or wait until the spring to cover it in class.

“Based on the webinars we’ve held and comments we’ve seen on Facebook and elsewhere, teachers are feeling way more vulnerable and way more under attack this election season than ever before,” said Emma Humphries, chief education officer for iCivics, a nonpartisan nonprofit founded in 2009 by former Supreme Court justice Sandra Day O’Connor to create content and games to promote civic education in schools.

For Joe Welch, who teaches middle school American history in a suburban Pittsburgh district that is closely divided between Republican and Democratic voters, the national nastiness has given him pause as he prepares his lessons. He has heard from other civics teachers he knows in schools in different regions of the country that this year, they “wouldn’t touch the election with a 10-foot pole.” Welch, 36, understands the reticence but thinks it’s important to not ignore the elephant and the donkey in the room.

“In many ways, by not teaching something, you are teaching a lesson,” he said.

Still, Welch said, he’s proceeding cautiously.

“There are traditional lessons around elections that I think are modified this year,” Welch said. “And they are different just because you don’t want to bring in that divisiveness that everybody recognizes is apparent in American society right now.’’

Karalee Wong Nakatsuka has taught middle school U.S. history in her conservative-leaning Southern California school district for 30 years and has never revealed whom she has voted for to students or parents. And 2020 is no different. That studious neutrality is important for many teachers who don’t want to influence students or suggest they lean one way or another. But this year has become difficult, Wong Nakatsuka says, because “even if you are objective, people aren’t understanding what you’re doing. Just saying Biden or just saying Trump can be seen as being political.” Laughing, she adds, “Just saying ‘political’ can be seen as being political!”

“Teaching people how to speak about issues and how to be able to respectfully disagree, we obviously can see that’s something our country needs right now,” Wong Nakatsuka said.

Even as teachers aim for neutral ground, many say they feel they have become targets. Some hear from parents who don’t want them to talk about certain issues. And the criticism comes from the very top as well. At a speech in September at the National Archives, Trump said the demonstrations against racial injustice this year, including some that turned violent, “are the direct result of decades of left-wing indoctrination in our schools. It’s gone on far too long.”

Trump alleges ‘left-wing indoctrination’ in schools, says he will create national commission to push more ‘pro-American’ history

That sort of rhetoric hasn’t made any civics teacher’s job easier.

The concerns educators have about teaching the election process during this polarized political era come amid growing calls for a reemphasis on civics education as a way to increase understanding of how government operates and why it even exists.

“I really feel like people understand that the base of our country is its civic strength,” said Louise Dubé, executive director of iCivics. “If we’re not able to solve problems together, which is basically what politics attempts to do, we will not be as strong a country.”

For Dubé, the contentious political climate is an argument for investing in civics education and having states commit to broadening opportunities in schools for students to do more than just memorize facts about citizenship and government but to also learn how shouldering their responsibilities and exercising their rights as citizens are integral to sustaining democracy.

“Much of our country realizes that whatever the outcome of the next election, we are still going to have a very sizable portion of the population that is very angry and very polarized,” Dubé said. “We’ve forgotten how to be empathetic with each other and to try to put in practice the basic tenets of the way our democracy works. It doesn’t work like ‘my way or the highway.’ ”

How civics education is taught varies widely from state to state. There is no federal mandate for teaching the subject, and not all states require it. Some states call for students to learn simply the basics of what it would take to pass a U.S. citizenship test, while others, such as Florida, Illinois and Massachusetts, have much more expansive requirements.

Earlier this month, a federal judge in Rhode Island dismissed a lawsuit by public school students and their families in the state that sought to establish a constitutional right to civics education that would prepare them for “voting, serving on a jury, understanding economic, social, and political systems sufficiently to make informed choices, and to participate effectively in civic activities.”

Though he concluded that there is no constitutional right to civics education, U.S. District Judge William Smith expressed admiration for the plaintiffs in his decision.

“What these young people seem to recognize is that American democracy is in peril. Its survival, and their ability to reap the benefit of living in a country with robust freedoms and rights, a strong economy, and a moral center protected by the rule of law is something that citizens must cherish, protect, and constantly work for,” Smith wrote. “We would do well to pay attention to their plea.”

The plaintiffs have indicated they will appeal the decision.

While there may be no court-ordered mandate for teaching civics education, dozens of organizations around the country are working together to push states to offer more.

Led by CivXNow, a coalition of 139 educational and advocacy organizations launched by Dubé and iCivics two years ago, the groups say there is widespread support among Republican and Democratic voters for bolstering civics education and making it an integral part of the curriculum for middle and high school students.

Alexandra Henderson, a high school senior in Baton Rouge, advised iCivics on Students Power Elections, an online guide that explains all aspects of the voting process as well as other avenues for civic engagement for students. The 17-year-old won’t be able to vote in this year’s election but says she and her friends are politically active and encourage other young people to learn everything they can about how government operates.

Despite the many difficulties of 2020, Henderson said she is optimistic about the impact young people can have.

“It all starts with the youth and voting and getting our voices heard,” she said. “There’s no way we can get out of this very dark place our country is in without the young people getting involved and being heard.”

Nicolle Badillo-Vélez also served as an adviser on the student voter guide. The high school senior who lives in San Sebastián, Puerto Rico, said the devastation brought to the island by Hurricane Maria in 2017 made her more aware of politics and more interested in how government works.

Learning about civics, Badillo-Vélez said, helped her realize that young people “do have a voice and our voices matter, and that if we want to get involved and there’s something we want to change, there’s a way to do so.”

Civics education proponents want more opportunities for the sort of engaged learning that Henderson and Badillo-Vélez have been able to access. There are nascent efforts to fund ambitious changes to civics education and give it the prominence in school that its supporters say is crucial for the health of American democracy.

Bipartisan legislation introduced in Congress last month would provide $1 billion for states to bolster their civics education. The Educating for Democracy Act, sponsored by Reps. Rosa L. DeLauro (D-Conn.) and Tom Cole (R-Okla.), would fund civics and social studies programs. Students in states receiving the grants would be required to take the National Assessment of Educational Progress in civic and history education. The bill is not likely to be considered this year, but its supporters are hopeful it will be reintroduced in 2021.

Whether significant federal funding is ever provided remains to be seen, but many civics teachers are encouraged that interest is growing for expanding teaching about government.

Joe Harmon, 48, who teaches middle school students in a rural western Pennsylvania district that voted overwhelmingly for Trump in 2016, says he has seen a renewed effort to bolster civics in the wake of the 2016 and 2020 election cycles.

“We really want people involved and knowing what the issues are and how government works,” Harmon said. “I tell everybody civics is the most important subject because society is where you exercise your reading and English and math skills as a citizen. How do you know how to do that without being a properly educated citizen?”