Category Archives: civic literacy

Compelling Stories

The Iowa Department of Education released draft Social Studies standards last month. Written by the Social Studies Standards Writing Team between January and June 2016, the draft standards are in the process of being reviewed by the Social Studies Standards Review Team, which met for the first time on November 8th.

The draft standards are self-described as “a bold step toward a vision of social studies for all of Iowa’s students.” Bold or not, the draft standards offer an impoverished vision of social studies, driven by skills rather than content knowledge in the disciplines of history, geography, economics, and government.

Skills driven standards can’t go out of fashion fast enough, in my opinion. Content knowledge is power. The power to think, to create, to apply, to evaluate, to understand, and the power to acquire more knowledge within a particular discipline. [See David Didau, for example, on the impossibility of separating skills from knowledge.]

These standards fail to effectively outline much in the way of content knowledge students should acquire (more on this in a bit), but, also, having turned away from content driven standards, the Social Studies Studies Writing Team has apparently determined that the purpose of social studies education in Iowa is to develop the “civic competence” of students instead of building their content knowledge.

From the introduction of the draft standards:

Preparing students for the 21st century cannot be accomplished without a strong emphasis on the social studies. The founders of our country emphasized that the vitality and security of a democracy depends upon the education and willingness of its citizens to participate actively in society. This level of participation requires civic competence. In other words, it is imperative that our future generations gain an understanding of the core concepts of social studies. Life in the United States within our democratic system is constantly changing which creates varying social circumstances. As a result, citizens need to adapt to such changes in order to sustain vital democratic traditions. Meeting this need is the mission of the social studies.

As we work to carry on the ideals of the founders, we are compelled to revisit our fundamental beliefs and institutions and to construct new social contexts and relationships. The Iowa Core in Social Studies reflects the belief that the informed social studies student comprehends and applies to personal and public experiences the core content perspectives of the many academic fields of the social studies. Our entire social experiences, as well as our republic, are established upon the principles of individual citizenship. Therefore, it is necessary to pay attention to the education of those future citizens.

The Iowa Core for Social Studies is premised upon a rigorous and relevant K – 12 social studies program. Engaging students in the pursuit of active informed citizenship will require a broad range of understandings and skills. It will also require an articulated district curriculum which connects students to the social world through informed instructional experiences led by teachers who are committed to active civic participation. This represents a bold step toward a vision of social studies for all of Iowa’s students.

If the problem isn’t immediately apparent, let’s take a look at the inquiry anchor standard taking informed action. Under the draft standards, Kindergarten students are expected to “[t]ake group or individual action to help address local, regional, and/or global problems (e.g., letters to the editor, public service announcement, community service projects, and posters).”

While I agree with the writing team that education is important to prepare students for whatever civic engagement they choose to pursue, there is an important distinction to be made between teaching the relevant content of history, geography, economics, and government that could form the foundation of civic participation and directing that actual civic participation under the guise of developing civic competence.

Setting aside that Kindergarteners seem unlikely to possess the skills and knowledge to craft effective letters to the editor, we’re talking about state actors directing students to make political speech and take other political action. I can’t see any way for this to be done in a content and viewpoint neutral way. It seems like this should have been an obvious problem for a group purporting to carry on the work of the Founders, but apparently it wasn’t.

As an alternative, I’d like to see Iowa develop history-driven (chronological order, please) content standards (see, as an example, South Carolina’s 2005 social studies standards). Through the study of history, students have the opportunity to learn about the structure of our government institutions and the reasons why our government institutions are structured the way they are. In addition, our history is full of compelling stories of political action and movements that have shaped our nation–the Declaration of Independence, the Federalist Papers, the abolitionist movement, the temperance movement, the women’s suffrage movement, the labor movement, the civil rights movement, and more. These stories can help students build the foundational knowledge of civic competence while leaving them to make their own choices about their own political activity.

Unfortunately, the draft standards are weak on any specific historical content knowledge.  Compare Iowa’s draft 4th grade standards with South Carolina’s 2005 4th grade standards. Or Iowa’s draft 8th grade standards (US history) with South Carolina’s 2005 4th and 5th grade standards (US history). I’ll leave it to you to determine which standards are more likely to result in students prepared “to bring to bear the complex and sophisticated ways of thinking utilized by historians when thinking historically.”

Another mistake, I think, is the decision of the writing team to try to embed Iowa history throughout the K-12 standards. If Iowa history were assigned to a particular grade level, then the University of Iowa Press and IPTV have us covered for teaching materials.

All in all, I’d like to see the review team to recommend a substantial, content-driven rewrite of the draft standards but have no expectation that will happen.


Civic Literacy and Kids’ Constitutional Rights

The Des Moines Register published an editorial a few days ago about school suspensions rates (HT Chris Liebig). I found that I was actually more interested in the sidebar item, titled Kids Have the Right to Remain Silent:

The editorial board asked Des Moines attorney Mike Bandstra about the rights of students accused of misconduct in schools. What should parents do, for example, when an alleged offense results in a request to bring a child to the principal, the school police officer or the local police station for questioning?
The short answer: “Never let a child be interviewed or interrogated by a ‘state actor’ (teacher, school resource officer or police officer) without legal representation when the interview has to do with potential criminal wrongdoing of the child. The child maintains the same Fourth and Fifth amendment privileges as any adult.”

I think this sidebar raises a number of interesting issues, but the one that prompted this post is the notion that children as young as age five (perhaps younger, I suppose, if you include public preschool programs) are largely on their own to assert their constitutional rights during the school day. So I wondered whether and how the Iowa Core Civic Literacy addresses constitutional rights.

From the introduction:

Political science is the study of power and authority through the examination of political processes, governmental institutions, and human behavior in a civil society. In this context the study of civics is understood to include the form and function of government. Civic literacy encompasses civics but also addresses the individual’s social and political participation.

I don’t expect much at the K-2 level, but consider this strand of essential concepts and/or skills for Grades 3-5:

Understand the rights and responsibilities of each citizen and demonstrate the value of lifelong civic action

  • Understand what it means to be a citizen.
  • Understand why civic responsibility is important and know examples of civic responsibility.
  • Understand that Congress passes laws to protect individual rights.
  • Understand how people can participate in their government.
  • Understand what political leaders do and why leadership is necessary in a democracy.
  • Understand opportunities for leadership and public service in the student’s own classroom, school, community, state, and the nation.
  • Understand the importance of voluntarism as a characteristic of American society.

Apparently it isn’t an essential concept and/or skill to understand why constitutional rights are important and to know examples of constitutional rights, although surely there are at least a few that elementary students could understand.

Consider also this strand of essential concepts and/or skills for Grades 3-5:

Understand the purpose and function of each of the three branches of government established by the Constitution

  • Understand that the legislative branch passes laws to protect individual rights.
  • Understand that the executive branch carries out and enforces laws to protect individual rights.
  • Understand that the judicial branch, headed by the Supreme Court, makes decisions concerning the law that aim to protect individual rights.

I hope the wrongness of this doesn’t require any further comment, because I’m not quite sure what to say here.

The essential concepts and/or skills don’t really get much better for older students. For Grades 6-8 constitutional rights are lumped together with other rights, responsibilities, or values, obscuring their importance:

  • Understand rights, roles and status of the individual in relation to the general welfare.
  • Understand issues regarding personal, political, and economic rights.
  • Understand values such as individual rights, the common good, self government, justice, equality, diversity, openness and free inquiry, truth, patriotism are fundamental to American public life.
  • Understand constitutions protect individual rights and promote the common good (under a strand about understanding various political systems throughout the world).

The essential concepts and/or skills identified for Grades 9-12 are much the same, and in no place in the document can I find the words “Bill of Rights.”

I am decidedly underwhelmed by the Iowa Core Civic Literacy standards with regard to coverage of constitutional rights. I know that schools can go beyond these standards, and I, for one, sure hope they are because it isn’t at all clear that these standards will otherwise prepare students to understand and assert their constitutional rights–in or out of school.