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New York’s Opportunity to Become a Model for Effective Civics Education


govcuomo andrew elementary

(photo via the Governor's Office)


Could New York be the next state to catch the civics bug and modernize its civics education standards? Hopefully, state legislators and policymakers are watching Massachusetts, which just took a big step forward by creating a national model for effective civics education.

Two short days after the November 6 election, Massachusetts adopted cutting-edge legislation (S-2631) that, when implemented, will ensure that every Massachusetts student receives a project-based civics education, equipping them with the skills, knowledge, and dispositions for lifelong civic participation in our 21st century democracy. This legislation, the most substantive civics education bill passed in the country in recent history, may show New York the way forward.

Like many states nationwide that are proposing reforms to their civics education standards, Massachusetts may have felt the need to respond to the current civic reckoning. It seems like policymakers may finally realize that one of the potential consequences of deprioritizing civics education in schools is an electorate that does not understand how democracy works or have the civic skills to advocate for systemic change to issues impacting themselves and their community.

The lack of civic knowledge and skills has resulted in an electorate that does not actively participate in politics or believe that government is relevant to their daily lives. In one fell swoop, Massachusetts has positioned itself as a model state for effective civics education. New York, which prides itself on being a state that sets national legislative and policy trends, should take note.

To contextualize the current state of New York’s democracy and why civics education is needed “now more than ever,” the state has historically ranked at the bottom of the national voter turnout list. That’s why it’s so impressive that almost 50 percent of registered New York voters cast a ballot on November 6. According to the Journal News, this year was the “highest turnout for a midterm election in almost a quarter-century.” Compare that to turnout in 2014 when only 33 percent of New Yorkers cast a ballot in the midterms.

Part of the reason for our state’s historic, low voter turnout is our antiquated voting laws. New York requires voters to register 25 days before the election, they cannot register to vote online unless they have a DMV-issued identification, 16- and 17-year-olds are not allowed to pre-register to vote when they obtain said DMV-issued identification, and New Yorkers cannot vote early - unlike voters in 37 states. One can only hope that the new leadership in the state Legislature can bring our voting laws into the 21st century to address some of the root causes of our participation problem.

But another root cause for New York’s low voter turnout is that the state isn’t effectively educating young people for civic participation.

To be fair, New York already mandates that all students take Participation in Government (also known as PIG), a one-semester civics education course, before graduating from high school. On its face PIG should do the trick as the course is intended to provide students with “opportunities to become engaged in the political process by acquiring the knowledge and practicing the skills necessary for active citizenship.” The reality is that while PIG is aligned with principles of Action Civics on paper, PIG as implemented falls short.

Action Civics is a 21st-century civics education pedagogy that is a student-centered, project-based approach to develop the individual skills, knowledge, and dispositions necessary for 21st-century democratic practice. As implemented, PIG does not educate students about local democratic structure, help them learn about processes by engaging in those processes, or how to research, analyze, propose, debate, and advocate for their collectively determined solution(s). By and large, PIG as implemented is civics as usual, a largely passive form of learning that is often a senior year after-thought based on rote memorization of random government facts.

Teaching civics well requires robust professional development and curricular resources from the state. Even if teachers wanted to teach PIG as intended, many are not provided the resources or training necessary to do so effectively. There are very few resources or professional development courses designed to equip educators to navigate the discussion and debate of community issues or local democratic structures, and implement nonpartisan, student-led project-based learning in the classroom.

There’s also no accountability system in place to ensure teachers measure student learning and ensure that their students develop the civic knowledge, skills, and dispositions necessary for lifelong civic participation in our 21st century democracy.

The takeaway is that PIG is being implemented haphazardly and inconsistently statewide. The fact that PIG is being implemented inconsistently only further widens the Civic Engagement Gap plaguing underserved school districts statewide. The reality is that students from rural and low socioeconomic urban communities are 50 percent less likely to study how laws are made, and 30 percent less likely to report having experiences with deliberative discussions in their classes.

Fortunately, all is not lost. The New York State Education Department (NYSED) made a commitment to modernizing New York’s civics standards when they added the College, Career and Civic Readiness Index (CCCRI) and created a graduation “seal of civic engagement” in the state’s plan to comply with the federal Every Student Succeeds Act. While the CCCRI establishes a baseline for holding schools accountable for ensuring students’ civic readiness, NYSED has yet to define “civic readiness.” NYSED also needs to define the criteria for how students can earn the seal of civic engagement and then ensure that every student is granted meaningful opportunities to achieve it.

As a member of a task force NYSED recently established to propose recommendations about how to define civic readiness and the criteria for the seal of civic engagement, I will advocate for a robust civics education for every student in New York.

It is incumbent upon us as a state to follow the lead of Massachusetts and others in adopting a rigorous definition of civic readiness and investing in professional development to prepare educators to teach modernized civics standards. Most importantly, NYSED must distribute funding equitably to districts, prioritizing those with greatest need to help them implement new mandates. Doing so would help strengthen New York’s democracy by ensuring that more New Yorkers have the knowledge and skills necessary to participate in our 21st-century democracy; and hopefully vote in all elections. Anything less would only widen the Civic Engagement Gap.

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DeNora Getachew, New York City Executive Director of Generation Citizen. On Twitter @DeNoraGetachew & @GenCitizen.

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