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OPINION

The road to a stronger democracy begins in the classroom

A new program provides guiding principles that educators can use to transform how civics is taught in schools.

Igor Serazetdinov/Adobe

The Jan. 6 insurrection at the US Capitol was a stark reminder of the deep-seated problems in US democracy and a clarion call to address those problems by strengthening the civic instruction of our young people.

The consequences of neglecting civic education are all around us: rampant misinformation, disengagement from democratic action and institutions, acrimonious political divisions that pose a danger to the survival of our system of government, and a sentiment, shared by too many young Americans, that they have no place in American civic life.

Civic education must be transformed so that it can become one of the foundational solutions to the problems that ail our democracy.

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Most states require at least one semester of civics instruction. The problem is not whether civics is taught, but how it’s taught, and whom it’s benefiting.

Too often civics and US history are taught as sets of facts to be memorized — without giving students an opportunity to ask deeper questions about what they are learning. Students are rarely challenged to connect classroom content to their own lives and communities. And this includes students in Massachusetts, even though the Commonwealth has been at the forefront of the effort to revive civic education.

That can leave students unable to understand the context for the political battles they see on the news, and unequipped with the civic skills they need to fix the problems they see all around them.

Young people deserve civic learning that imparts deep knowledge about our constitutional democracy as well as giving them the agency and skills to wield that knowledge so they can become civically engaged stewards of our republic.

A new cross-ideological initiative, “Educating for American Democracy: A Roadmap for Excellence in History and Civics Education for All Learners,” will pave the path for this to happen.

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The program provides rigorous yet highly flexible guiding principles that states, districts, and individual educators can use to transform the way civics is taught in American schools.

Protestors marching to the State House, Dec. 16, 2019. The crowd of mostly young people had gathered on Copley Plaza to call for action on climate change, then marched to Beacon Hill.
Protestors marching to the State House, Dec. 16, 2019. The crowd of mostly young people had gathered on Copley Plaza to call for action on climate change, then marched to Beacon Hill.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

It is not a mandate, nor is it a national standard. Funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities and the US Department of Education, it’s the 18-month work of more than 300 scholars, educators, and practitioners from across the ideological spectrum who have created a set of detailed and interconnected recommendations that can be adapted to fit the needs of any community. The recommendations include a notable shift from breadth to depth, leveraging an inquiry framework to mesh history and civics, using facts and encouraging discussion by bringing forward engaging and relatable questions for students at all grade levels.

As principal investigators in this effort and coauthors of the Roadmap, we believe it’s needed now more than ever, and we call for teachers and educational policy makers across the country to build curriculum and lessons from its guidance.

Educating for American Democracy represents a shift to a different kind of civic education — one that guides students as they ask questions, encourages teachers and students to tackle dilemmas in civic learning, and helps students balance and integrate the different perspectives that influence our civic and political life. And, though it is not a political document, it does not shy away from advocating that teachers and students grapple with ideologically contentious issues, such as the acknowledgment of Indigenous lands.

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Our goal is to ensure that every student in the United States receives a comprehensive preparation for civic life by 2030 — and to ensure that civic education is relevant for every student in the US education system.

Creating equity and inclusive learning environments is at the core of the Roadmap. Civic learning must be scaled to build on young people’s diverse experiences and cultures, and on the context of the communities in which they live and learn. Students of all backgrounds and identities need to recognize they’re an integral part of the country’s complicated history and, more important, that they have a critical role to play in shaping its future.

To provide teachers with the support and materials they need to implement these strategies, the Educating for American Democracy initiative is launching a website that provides practical content and lesson plan examples for every different grade level. The Roadmap report also incorporates innovative benchmarks, such as badging systems (formally acknowledging the development of certain civic skills) and civic lesson plans that encourage deeper learning. And it looks to the future, with recommendations for how to strengthen and diversify the pipeline of civics educators who will teach the next generation of students.

The Educating for American Democracy Roadmap is an ambitious effort. It has to be. The road to repairing all that ails our democracy must start in classrooms. We call on educators and policy makers to accept this formidable challenge and to take up and build on the Roadmap. And we call on parents and neighbors to support teachers in this vital endeavor and help cocreate a new chapter of civic education in the United States.

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Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg is director of CIRCLE at Tufts University’s Tisch College. Louise Dubé is executive director of iCivics.