Policies to Promote Civic Engagement Take Shape

By Valerie Norville

Savvy state boards of education recognize that high-quality civic education not only prepares students to vote and understand how the U.S. Constitution divides political power. It helps students acquire skills needed to make difficult choices that affect their communities, advocate for themselves and others on public matters, and contribute to healthy, informed civic engagement.

Despite widespread concerns about divisiveness and disinformation in civic dialogue across the United States, most state boards in 2018 have not revisited civic education policies. A few states have.

Some are following Virginia’s lead in developing a Board of Education’s Excellence in Civics Education Seal. To earn it, Virginia students must receive at least a B in the required series of history and government classes and complete 50 hours of community service, including participation in scouting organizations, JROTC, political campaigns, or government internships. Georgia’s graduating class will also be able to apply for the state’s new civic engagement diploma seal next spring. It requires students to pass a test based on the U.S. citizenship exam and complete qualifying service hours and extracurricular activities.

California in 2017 passed Assembly Bill 24, which requires the state board by 2021 to adopt, reject, or modify criteria for a state seal of civic engagement recommended by the state superintendent for education. New York State included a civic readiness index in its plan for the Every Student Succeeds Act. Its Office of Curriculum and Instruction is establishing a committee to define civic readiness and consider initiatives such as a diploma seal and capstone projects.

As part of its Profile of a Virginia Graduate, the Virginia State Board of Education included community engagement and civic responsibility as one of four domains of student learning and achievement, and it called for students to both understand and demonstrate good citizenship. At the board’s June meeting, board member James Dillard outlined the work of the Virginia Commission on Civic Education, whose subcommittee of social studies experts used a policy gap tool developed by the Education Commission of the States and National Center for Learning and Civic Engagement to assess civic education policies in the Commonwealth. Dillard, a member of the Civic Commission, reviewed key civic education policy elements included in the subcommittee’s report.

The report rated Virginia’s mission statement, learning standards, and preservice requirements and accreditation highly but called for greater efforts to increase hands-on learning opportunities, teacher professional development, interdisciplinary integration, and assessment of community impact. Dillard called on the board to consider added policies to improve civic education in Virginia. In particular, he lamented the paucity of teacher professional development opportunities. “It’s coming at the absolute worst time, when we need more understanding,” said Dillard.

Connecticut’s state board heard a presentation on the Red, White and Blue Schools program, which recognizes districts and individual schools that have taught civics in innovative ways in the classroom and through activities in the community. In June 2018, Connecticut recognized 17 schools, including three districts, for their work in the preceding school year.

Valerie Norville is NASBE’s editorial director. She can be reached at valerie.norville@nasbe.org.