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Young lives. Old problems. New solutions.

Teens take the national stage, armed with ... civics lessons?

Florida leads the way in civics education, thanks to a realization that its citizens were inadequately informed. Other states are considering changes as well, at a time when student involvement in current events is on the rise.

Wilfredo Lee/AP
Casey Sherman (c.), 17, lead student coordinator for the Parkland march, speaks during a planning meeting with Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School students, parents, and volunteers in Coral Springs, Fla., on March 14. Students from the school – who have benefited from Florida's comprehensive civics education requirements –  have spearheaded the March for Our Lives on March 24, which could become one of the largest marches in history.

When the fire alarm went off at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Feb. 14, Rebecca Schneid’s teacher hid her in the newspaper closet. Surrounded by stacks of old editions of the school newspaper The Eagle Eye, Rebecca texted her mom: “This is a code red and I don't think it’s a drill.”

As editor-in-chief of the school newspaper, the closet used to be Rebecca’s “favorite place on Earth.” Almost a month after the shooting, she says she still has bad days, thinking about hiding in the hot closet for 90 minutes while 17 of her classmates and teachers were killed.

But Rebecca is not avoiding The Eagle Eye. Since returning to school, she has written articles about the NRA’s lobbying efforts and the #NeverAgain movement. Someday, these articles will fill the same closet where she hid.

“It’s very symbolic,” says Rebecca, a junior. “The irony is not lost on me.”

A leader of the school newspaper, politics club member, AP US history student, and participant on the youth cabinet of US Rep. Ted Deutch (D) of Florida, Rebecca may seem uniquely positioned to lead Stoneman Douglas students’ political fight for gun control. She is – but she is not the only one.

After the school shooting in Parkland, Fla., students across the country are finding their political voice. Young Americans from more than 3,000 schools, many of them too young to vote, participated in a national walk-out event on March 14 to protest gun violence. And on Saturday, March 24, students are expected to lead hundreds of March for Our Lives rallies.

Lynne Sladky/AP
Students walk out of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, as part of a nationwide protest against gun violence, Mar. 14, in Parkland, Fla. Florida, a leader in civics education in the US, mandates that all middle school students take a civics course, pass a comprehensive test, and include civics education reading in K-12 language arts.

The Parkland students were thrust into the spotlight, but they had preparation for this moment. Thanks to state law, they have benefited from a civic education that many Americans have gone without – one that has taught them how to politically mobilize, articulate their opinions, and understand complex legislative processes. Now they are using their education to lead their peers across the country.

“Parkland really shows the potential of public civic education,” says Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg, director of the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) at Tufts University in Medford, Mass. “The goal is to make every student like that – not afraid to discuss difficult issues,” and with the skills to express a viewpoint.

Current high schoolers’ interest in politics did not happen overnight, says John Rogers, director of the Institute for Democracy, Education, and Access at the University of California, Los Angeles. They have come of age in the shadows of the Black Lives Matter movement, LGBTQ advocacy, and Dreamers legislation – all societal issues that are relatively easy to understand and spread quickly on social media. Young Americans, he says, have been waiting for their moment to jump into the ring.

“We see a reemergence of commitment among young people to look past themselves and see themselves as agents that can affect change,” says Dr. Rogers. “The walk-outs [last week] were about gun control, but it was also about young people wanting to have a voice.”

Florida's comprehensive program

States are moving to keep up with the current momentum around civics, but Florida is largely regarded as having the most comprehensive civics education program in the country.

The Justice Sandra Day O’Connor Civics Education Act – named for the former member of the US Supreme Court who has made civic education a hallmark of her post-bench work – passed in 2010 with bipartisan support. It mandates that all middle school students in Florida take a civics course, pass a comprehensive test, and include civics education reading in K-12 language arts. 

“If every state enacted a policy like Florida’s ... America’s young people would be on course for more active and informed civic engagement,” says a September 2017 report co-authored by Dr. Kawashima-Ginsberg.

According to the study, more than 90 percent of Florida civics teachers discuss current events in the classroom, two-thirds of them doing so weekly, and a majority of them use teaching simulations such as debates or mock trials.

Florida's Broward County, the sixth largest school district in the United States where Stoneman Douglas High is located, takes civics education even further. In the district-wide debate program, every public high school and middle school has a team, and several elementary schools participate as well.

“[T]he overall emphasis of civic learning is paying off,” says Louise Dubé, executive director of iCivics, a civic learning website with teaching resources and games founded by Justice O’Connor in 2009. “[Parkland] is a sad way that we got to discover this, but a Civics 2.0 – not your grandmother’s civics – but a civics that is relevant, engaging, and puts kids at the center of the political action ... graduates citizens who are ready to be a part of a community that we call the American experiment.”

But the students from Parkland are largely the exception to the rule. A growing emphasis on test scores in US education has pressured teachers to focus on reading and math. And in today’s polarized age, many teachers feel nervous about discussing politics without support from school, state, or district officials because it often leads to complaints from parents.

With no cohesive nationwide policies regarding civics, comparing learning requirements between states is difficult.

For example, due to campaigning by the Joe Foss Institute’s Civics Education Initiative, 17 states now require students to take some version of the US citizenship exam before graduation. But in only eight of those states is a passing score required to graduate. And even in those eight states where the test has real implications, rote memorization to pass a 100-question test is not always the best way to get students excited about civic participation, says Kawashima-Ginsberg.

“[E]ncourage the idea that a school is a micro-democracy where students can become citizens,” she explains. “Accountability is important but it doesn't always have to be tests.... Illinois doesn't have tests per se, but there is such a strong expectation – there is a cultural shift there.”

In 2015, Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner signed a law that requires all high school students to take a semester of civics. There is no required testing at the end of the semester, but the program invests in professional development for civics teachers through training sessions, mentorships, and roundtable discussions. Data is still being collected on the law’s effects. 

'The desire to learn is there'

In Winterville, N.C., civics teacher Victoria Bridgers has 12 weeks to teach 10th graders about how the US government works. And she has to pack a lot into the semester: Only a handful of students, for example, can correctly identify US Vice President Mike Pence.

“The desire to learn is there,” says Ms. Bridgers, “but the general knowledge is low.”

The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) found in its most recent report in 2014 that only 23 percent of US 8th grade students were “at or above proficient” in civics, failing to answer questions about basic political topics such as checks and balances and presidential powers. The scores varied by race, with white students three times more likely than black students, and twice as likely as Hispanic students, to be proficient.

Students don’t begin Bridgers’ class understanding how impeachment or zoning works, but she says they are “beyond fascinated” with the inner workings of the US government and excited to vote in their first presidential election in 2020. Current events, she says, have only piqued students’ interest further.

“Students are paying attention,” says Bridgers. “They might be fuzzy on the details, but even the less enthused student has a clue that something is going on with Russia.”

Bridgers says the student council at her high school grew from roughly 12 students to an unprecedented 30 in 2016 due to more and more students wanting to participate. And when her school received a shooting threat (which was later dismissed) one week after the Parkland shooting, some students chose to stay at school and write letters to politicians asking for stricter gun control, rather than go home for the day.

“This generation was raised very differently and has a different sense of identity,” says Ms. Dubé of iCivics, adding that students today are “particularly hungry” for civic education. “You have two choices: you can be completely cynical and disengage [from politics], or you can call the bluff and decide to play the game.... There is a growing sense that youth are re-negotiating more influential roles in the family and in schools.”

iCivics saw a modest rise in visitors after it launched in 2009. But the number of students using iCivics has taken off exponentially in recent years, increasing from 1.3 million annual users in 2014, to 5.3 million in 2017.

But even as student interest is on the rise, some teachers say that today’s political environment complicates their efforts to help students understand and appreciate American government. 

SOURCE: State graduation requirements; Additional input for Tier 1 states from reports by the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement and discussion with its director, Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg
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Story Hinckley, research; Karen Norris, graphic/Staff

“Now it’s more difficult than it used to be because what they see in how government operates, and what we try to teach them, are so distinctly different,” says Mike Harris, a teacher and debate coach at Wichita East High School in Kansas, while at a national quizzing tournament with his team in Andover, Kan., March 16. 

But Mr. Harris, who already has 50 two-person teams signed up for his debate group next year – up from 36 this year – says debate can help antidote the intense polarization in US society today.

“That’s the thing that we don’t do well as people anymore is looking at the other person’s perspective and understanding their position, and what their arguments are, and then finding a way to engage in that productively,” says Mr. Harris. “And that’s what debate creates.”

Boosting civic participation

When the push for Florida’s civics education act started a decade ago, reports ranked the state's civic health as “among the worst in the nation.” But low civic participation is not unique to Florida, with just more than 50 percent of eligible Americans voting in presidential elections.  

“I can see that as a motivation [for civics education],” says Dubé. “We pushed civics out of the classroom for decades and we are seeing the result of that.... Generations were lost.”

At the end of the 2017-2018 school year, the Kansas Board of Education plans to evaluate – and reward – schools in the state that do civics particularly well. Michigan passed a law last year requiring all high schools in the state to take a semester-long course on civics. North Carolina now has a three-member Joint Legislative Study Committee on Civics and Economics Education in the state legislature to evaluate students civic and economic literacy.

The Massachusetts state legislature is currently considering a bill that would “prepare students for lifelong civic motivation and participation ...” If the bill passes, all Massachusetts public school students will need to complete two civic projects, in two different grade levels, on a policy that affects their community in order to graduate.

Civics education advocates say that such measures are not only a step forward for their discipline, but a step forward for all education.

“Good civics is about analysis, synthesis,… developing their tools for analyzing political issues [and] being able to participate in dialogue,” says UCLA’s Rogers. “That's why we have public school – so we can pull together people from different backgrounds and build relationships of empathy with one another.” 

More than 1,300 miles away from Parkland, San Antonio high school student Selina Noe feels a sense of unity with her Parkland peers. After the Florida shooting, Selina wrote a letter to Congressman Will Hurd (R) of Texas in her AP English class suggesting some resolutions, such as background checks, that could prevent school shootings.

“In this generation, I feel like we can change something,” she says. “And if everyone gets to write a letter, and if everybody does something about this, then something will be done.”

Staff writer Christa Case Bryant contributed reporting from Andover, Kan., and staff writer Henry Gass contributed reporting from San Antonio.

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