But something very important is missing from this report: any measure of what students know about their government. The last time NAEP released national scores for students’ civic knowledge was in 2014, when fewer than 25 percent of students scored as proficient. That overall average obscures significant opportunity gaps for high-quality civic education around racial and economic lines, according to the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement.
We also have historic lows in civic trust. Only 17 percent of Americans today say they can trust the government to do what is right, according to the Pew Research Center. Improving civic education must become a core component of improving civic trust and lessening polarization.
Although much of the country’s dissatisfaction is aimed at Washington, many D.C. schools and teachers, in partnership with civic engagement organizations such as the one I lead, Mikva Challenge DC, have been leading the way on new styles of civic education.
The District will soon have the opportunity to invest more in civic education, and civic-minded citizens should help make that happen.
Mikva DC calls this new way of teaching about the rights and responsibilities of democracy Action Civics. The basic premise of which is straightforward: Students should learn about democracy by doing it, by being “in action” on the issues that matter to them in their communities. Action Civics turns traditional civics upside down; instead of starting at the top with the Constitution and how a bill becomes a law, our hands-on teaching starts with a community or personal issue and works up through local government and politics and then to the federal system.
Why? Because young people are keenly aware of inequities and injustices in our communities. And any kind of civic engagement and education must recognize students’ lived experiences to be effective.
For Mikva DC, this work starts in the classroom with our Project Soapbox program. Students write and deliver moving speeches on the biggest issue facing them and their community and what can be done about it. After Project Soapbox, students learn how to take informed civic action on the issues important to them.
In our after-school programs, students have researched the rising gun violence in our city, advocated better policies to address the affordable-housing crisis and are creating a youth guide to the 2020 presidential candidates. On Election Day, 100 Mikva DC students serve as election workers at polling stations across the city. And, in the summer, Mikva DC students intern for area elected officials, learning about local government and bringing their youth perspective to local policy conversations.
Action Civics is a bridge builder, bringing youth expertise and voice to local government and helping young people learn about — and trust — the vital work of local democracy.
Program evaluations from our work, and from similar Action Civics organizations, show that this kind of hands-on, experiential and youth-centered civic education has real and lasting results. Nationally, Mikva Challenge serves 15,000 students annually, and here in the District, we are reaching more than 1,300 students this school year in D.C. public and charter schools.
After going through Mikva DC’s Action Civics curriculum, 93 percent of students believe they can make things better by working with others in their community. In fact, 73 percent of students reported that they organized their peers to take action on an issue, and 87 percent of students discussed what the government could do to solve community issues. And after just one year of programming, 97 percent of students said they are more likely to encourage friends and family members to vote. One result that shows promise in these highly divided times: Seventy-four percent of students are more comfortable having civil discussions with people they disagree with. Mikva DC alumni are almost twice as likely as other youths to be registered to vote and 16 times as likely to volunteer on a political campaign.
The D.C. State of Board of Education wants to revise the District’s social studies standards this coming year to better invest in civic education and to support this growing work of Action Civics. They will need approval and funding from the Office of the State Superintendent of Education to move forward with this process.
The District’s teachers and partner organizations are doing great work at reinvigorating civic education. Let’s invest in it. Let’s lead the way on modernizing civic education so that the next generation has the tools, the knowledge and the civic trust to help our government tackle our country’s biggest issues.
Perhaps through our local leadership, our message can even make it up the Hill to Congress.