Action Civics Education Policies Influence Representative Democracy

Civic education policies have begun to diversify over the past few years as state-level institutions have taken a holistic approach to become more involved in the administrative planning and support process. Included in the state-level changes are revamped curriculum standards, better professional support for educators and newly established assessment tools for classroom programs. New policies are making a difference in the quality of students’ education and civic engagement.

Additionally, according to the State Civic Education Toolkit (a CSG publication coauthored with the Education Commission of the States), civics education advances the goals of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) by improving academic performance, increasing school and student success indicators and advancing college and career readiness skills. However, as people of color and low-income students continue to be disproportionately excluded from the civic education process, advocacy for equal educational opportunities remains vital. Students in low income schools, for example, are 30% less likely to participate in activities such as debates and half as likely to study how laws are created. Further, proficiency achievement disparities of as much as 23% exist between white students and students of color in eighth grade civic education.

When marginalized students are prepared for the political process, they are more likely to become civically involved and ensure that government is responsive to their needs. Further engagement of low-income students, and students of color, as a response to a traditional lack of equal investment among those populations, can help bring the equity that is necessary for the democratic political process to thrive. To meet these standards, states are looking to innovative programs to bolster their civic education curriculum, such as Action Civics.

Action Civics is a project-based approach that engages and prepares students for lifelong civic practice. Programs of this sort are student-led projects focused on realistic community-based issues encouraging civic action for change. Across the United States, nearly 1,000 schools use Action Civics or experiential civic learning components.

Content for these civics courses typically includes:

  • Citizenship rights and responsibilities
  • The branches of government and separations of power
  • Guidance on opportunities for citizen participation in various arenas of government
  • Historical trends of disenfranchised voter populations in regard to voter registration and civic participation
  • Understanding of intergovernmental affairs

Generation Citizen’s Through an Action Civics Lens report details this classroom program as a process of community examination, issue identification, research, strategizing, taking action and reflection with the support of administrators throughout. The goal is for students to take part in experiential learning and to make a change in their own community.

“Action Civics is wide-ranging and unique as it connects students to their government and allows for a student voice built on an understanding of how political systems work,” said Andrew Wilkes, senior director of advocacy and policy for Generation Citizen. “By directly engaging students in the policymaking process at an early age, Action Civics promotes a solution-oriented approach to community issues, which can increase student confidence in our public institutions.”

Generation Citizen states that students who receive both traditional and experiential civics education often participate in democratic institutions at higher rates than those who have not accessed that kind of opportunity in the classroom. These students also score highest on civic assessments and demonstrate greater levels of critical thinking and news comprehension.

Whereas civics education has typically been more accessible for higher-income and white students, an Action Civics policy approach is found to be most effective when it is focused on resonating its instruction with the experiences of all students from various backgrounds. This inclusive learning style encourages greater political participation by providing hands-on, civic learning for all students, building on their lived experiences and elevating understanding of the historical trends that have caused unequal civic participation, such as voter disenfranchisement.

Example programs and action plans are available through various reports such as Generation Citizen’s Through an Action Civics Lens CSG and ECS’s  State Civic Education Toolkit, and ECS’s Six Proven Practices for Effective Civic Learning.

Implemented models of Action Civics can additionally be found in recent state legislation, such as Massachusetts’ comprehensive civics education bill of 2018. Action Civics programs in Massachusetts not only provide experiential opportunities for student voice and learning how government works, but also facilitate discussion on current events, create opportunities for service-based learning, and construct democratic simulations of the political process.

Massachusetts’ programs demonstrate strategic practice of Action Civics through their requirement to provide all eighth grade and high school students with no less than one student-led civics project. Additionally, the bill creates a Civics Project Trust Fund for the purpose of supporting the professional development of teachers, assessment creation, and implementation of civics standards. According to Generation Citizen, this bill not only promotes Action Civics, but is perhaps the nation’s leading example of comprehensive civics education legislation.

Generation Citizen contends that there are three vital roles of states to support the implementation of Action Civics. First, policymakers must ensure that funds from multiple sources, to support teacher training, assessment, and district implementation, are allocated for the delivery of robust civic learning. Additionally, task forces, commissions, or advisory boards with education stakeholders should be facilitated to have further collaborative influence. Lastly, building a diverse, equitable, and inclusive constituency of educators, policymakers, researchers, funders, and students should be a priority for successful civics education systems that align priorities from the state education agency level to the local education agency level. Ultimately, establishing civic education programs on a state-administered basis helps create targeted learning opportunities that can reverse trends of unequal access to robust civics learning in historically underserved areas.

States can foster and preserve a healthier democracy by providing equitable opportunities for all citizens to know their rights and have a voice.  By supplying students with further opportunities to become involved, Action Civics presents an effective means to ensure that all students are on track for lifelong political and civic engagement.