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A Civic Duty: Students Want Schools to Teach Citizenship

Over her four years at Providence Career & Technical Academy (PCTA) in Rhode Island, high school senior Aleita Cook has studied kinematics, British literature, polynomial functions, and feminism. Before long, she will graduate and enter adulthood. Aleita, however, does not feel ready. “I’m worried about not having the proper education that I need to have a sustainable life,” she said.

Despite its range of subjects, PCTA’s curriculum has a glaring gap: the school offers no classes on civics. During her time in the Providence public school system, Aleita never learned how political parties function, how to register to vote, or how to vote. She considers all of these topics to be “basic things you need to know for the real world.”

Ahmed Sesay, a senior at Classical High School in Providence, shares her view. He began freshman year with enthusiasm, aware that U.S. News ranks his high school as the number one public school in Rhode Island. But looking back, Ahmed is dissatisfied.

“I definitely feel that my school should have taught me more about my responsibilities as a citizenvoting, taxes, things like that,” Ahmed told The Politic. “Schools should really take the time to educate people about how their actions and the things that they do affect society as a whole.”

In November 2018, Aleita, Ahmed, and twelve other students filed a class action lawsuit against the state of Rhode Island for its lack of civic education. The plaintiffs argue that by failing to provide students with an adequate education, Rhode Island also fails to protect students’ constitutional rights. Without civic knowledge, the plaintiffs believe, students are not properly prepared to exercise their rights—to vote, to serve on a jury, or to petition. They hope their case will make it to the Supreme Court.

The lawsuit is recent, but America’s civic education crisis is not. The individuals involved in the case at hand, Cook v. Raimondo, are some of many Americans who have recognized the importance of civic knowledge and civic engagement over the years. The fight for civic education is complicated—and critical—say advocates, who believe comprehensive civics in schools could solve problems ranging from voter apathy to political polarization to educational inequality.

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In 2014, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) found that in a civics assessment administered to eighth graders around the country, only 23 percent of students were at or above proficiency. Only 23 percent of eighth graders were likely to identify the purpose of the Declaration of Independence in a multiple choice question or provide examples of checks and balances.

A national survey released in 2018 by the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation showed similarly unfavorable results: based on its findings, only one in three Americans would pass the U.S. citizenship test. More than half of respondents did not know which countries the U.S. fought against in World War II or the number of justices who serve on the Supreme Court.

Michael Rebell, the lead counsel for Cook v. Raimondo and a professor at Teachers College, Columbia University, believes that civic education is needed for an active, responsible citizenry. In an interview with The Politic, he described the dangers of a lack of civic education.

“[We] have a lot of voter apathy,” Rebell said. “We have probably the lowest voter participation rate of the advanced democratic countries of the world. We have a lot of disinterest in civic involvement and community activities.”

The Pew Research Center has conducted studies that confirm Rebell’s concern: when compared to 32 other developed democratic countries around the world, the U.S. ranks 26th in voter turnout.

In 2014, another Pew Research Center study showed that Republicans and Democrats are further apart ideologically than at any point in the past two decades. “Many people have lost the ability or interest in speaking with people with different views, trying to respectfully listen to what others say, reasoning with them to come up with ways of solving problems,” Rebell said.

Ahmed thinks that civic education can help fix this. He believes that analyzing and discussing the American political system could promote a much more accepting environment. “I think teaching students how to engage in civil discussion with people who may disagree with them and to see the other person’s humanity and to empathize even if you may disagree—that’s a civic skill right there. It’s teaching civility. It’s teaching respect,” he said.

Although every state requires high school students to complete some coursework in civics or social studies, not all states value or define civics the same way.

Fewer than half of all states require students to take a civics exam in order to graduate. While 39 states explicitly require a U.S. government course as a high school graduation requirement, the rest, including Kentucky, Oregon, Vermont, categorize civics as social studies—an umbrella discipline that encompasses history, economics, and geography. As a result, some students’ social studies classes may only cover a limited range of civics topics, and often through the lens of history. For example, at Classical High School, where Ahmed studies, the only social studies graduation requirement is three years of history classes. “We would go over the three branches of government a little bit, but we never went into depth about how decisions are actually made and how people can affect them,” Ahmed said.

Ahmed, Aleita, and Rebell believe that mandatory civics courses in school curricula could be one part of the solution. In the Civics Framework for the 2014 NAEP, experts explain that knowledge about politics, government, and civil society is essential to citizenship: if students understand the foundations of the American political system, the role of citizens, and how the government embodies the values and principles of American democracy, they will be better equipped to improve their communities and protect people’s rights.

Additionally, the complaint for Cook v. Raimondo emphasizes the value of extracurricular activities in civic education. In the section titled “Civic Experiences,” the complaint states, “Students need exposure to experiences that show them how politics and government actually work and how civic participation can influence social and political outcomes.”

Student government, speech and debate, and mock trial can teach students to collaborate, speak effectively, and deliberate with team members. Through these activities, the plaintiffs argue, students not only gain experience communicating with people who hold different views, but they also develop a sense of agency and the tools to create change.

Field trips to local courts, state legislatures, and city councils count as another form of civic education, the complaint claims, “provid[ing] important opportunities for learning how political and civic institutions actually function…motivating students to become involved in political and civic activities later in life.”

The plaintiffs who attend PCTA and Cranston High School West said they had “no or very limited options” for civics-related extracurricular activities at their schools. Woonsocket Middle School and Woonsocket High School Career and Technical Center—two other Rhode Island schools attended by plaintiffs—“provide no opportunities” for civics-related field trips or community engagement activities, their students report.

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Many organizations around the country have tried to address the scarcity of comprehensive civic education in schools across the U.S.

In 2015, the Council on Public Legal Education in Washington state launched the Civic Learning Initiative, which partners with Washington courts, state officials, and educators to provide professional development courses for teachers and civic-learning programs for students. These programs include summer camps as well as voter mobilization activities. Another product of this collaboration has been iCivicsWA, a curriculum on icivics.org that teaches civics with a focus on Washington’s government and political history.

Similarly, in 2014, Chief Judge Robert Katzmann of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit launched Justice For All: Courts and the Community, a civic education initiative based out of the Thurgood Marshall United States Courthouse in New York City. Justice For All aims to “increase public understanding of the role and operations of the courts,” according to its website. The initiative organizes courthouse tours, visits from judges and attorneys to schools, classes called Library Labs that teach information literacy and legal research, and school field trips to naturalization ceremonies. Its new Learning Center, which features interactive touch-screen exhibits about the Constitution, the court system, and Thurgood Marshall, was recently opened to the public.

According to Justice For All’s 2018 report, the initiative gave approximately 10,000 students the opportunity to visit district courts in the Second Circuit, and the Thurgood Marshall Courthouse also hosted 12 Library Labs. “If you remember your own high school experience, you were dying to get your hands on something real. Here it is,” one high school teacher said of the labs.

In search of civic education, Aleita and Ahmed have turned to a different type of organization: the Providence Student Union (PSU), a nonprofit in Rhode Island that promotes student activism. From joining PSU to becoming a youth organizer—her current staff position—Aleita has discovered answers to many of her civics-related questions, such as how to register to vote and how to organize walkouts, marches, and protests. “PSU helped me boost my knowledge on politics,” she said. “It has helped me become the activist I am today.”

PSU was formed in response to Hope High School’s 2010 plans to change its block schedule, which would have given students fewer opportunities to take elective courses. Students at Hope scheduled meetings with school board members and district officials, organized a school-wide walkout with 400 participants, and worked with local attorneys to file a lawsuit that made its way to the Rhode Island Supreme Court. The lawsuit argued that the schedule change reduced the amount of “common planning time”—time for professional development and lesson planning—which defied state education regulations. Ultimately, the court sided with the students.

Since the success of the Hope High School block schedule campaign, PSU has started chapters in five Providence schools. PSU student members have organized to prevent the closure of Dr. Jorge Alvarez High School, to increase the number of students eligible for bus passes, and to include ethnic studies classes in school curricula. PSU members have used strategies like testifying at school board meetings, rallying outside the Providence School Department, and gathering signatures for petitions to achieve their goals.

Ahmed, who is also a youth organizer at PSU, told The Politic that PSU provided him with valuable civic engagement opportunities that were not offered in school and motivated him to become more politically active.

“PSU has definitely encouraged me to realize that there is power in numbers—there’s power in figuring out what people want to see and the needs that people have and trying to meet them. PSU has definitely given me more strength in feeling that I am able to facilitate discussions and get people to voice their grievances,” Ahmed said.

Zack Mezera, the executive director at PSU, graduated from Brown University in 2013. He hopes that exposure to civic education will have a long-lasting impact on students.

“Hopefully students get involved with PSU and feel that they can continue that kind of work throughout the rest of their lives,” Mezera told The Politic. “Students [involved with PSU] may go to the school board in 2019 and it’s their first time there and they figure out how to testify and gain experience. Then in 2031, or whenever they have kids and there’s a problem at school, they know where to go.”

Nevertheless, Aleita and Ahmed do not feel that PSU is a sufficient substitute for civics classes. The plaintiffs and their lawyers in Cook v. Raimondo strongly believe that all students have a right to a civics education in school, and that this education is crucial in preparing students to be capable citizens.

In an interview with The Politic, Jennifer Wood, an attorney for the plaintiffs in Cook v. Raimondo, emphasized that programs like PSU and Justice For All are “only able to reach a small fraction of the students enrolled in public schools.”

Wood added, “It would be like saying we’re going to have volunteers teach math after school—we’re not going to teach math during the school day. If I suggested that we take that approach as a nation, people would think, ‘That’s ridiculous.’”

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Ashley Santacruz and Yousof Abdelreheem, two seniors at John Bowne High School in New York City, have benefitted from a combination of in-class civic education and civics-related extracurricular activities. Both students are part of the John Bowne Law Institute, a four-year program at their high school that prepares students for future careers in law.

Starting in freshman year, Ashley and Yousof have taken classes about the Constitution, criminal justice, and legal research and writing through the Law Institute. With the launch of Justice For All in New York, they have had opportunities to take field trips to the Thurgood Marshall Courthouse and listen to judges speak at their high school. During senior year, John Bowne students who are not in the Law Institute take Participation in Government, a civics course that is required for graduation.

Ashley said her high school civics classes helped foster her interest in politics and activism. “The resources that were given to us were predominantly academic, and throughout my years in high school, I have grown to have a love for law. I want to do more, which is why I am now a student at the Columbia University Law high school program,” she told The Politic, referring to the Columbia Law School High School Law Institute. “I also want to pursue a career in law.”

Both Ashley and Yousof participate in mock trial and moot court competitions, as well as a variety of other activities. For example, Ashley is a representative in the Queens North Borough Council. She works with other student leaders to improve school safety, public transportation, and guidance counseling. The Council also promotes Respect For All, a New York City Department of Education (DOE) anti-bullying and anti-harassment initiative. Yousof is a member of the School Diversity Advisory Group, a group of students and educators handpicked by New York City Hall that evaluates the DOE’s plan to promote school integration and recommends additional strategies.

Veronica Thomas, a teacher at John Bowne High School, believes in the importance of teaching civics to students. Ashley and Yousof, she said, “are a testament to the fact that if you do that in ninth grade, it will encourage students to go beyond the resources that we provide here for them in the schools.”

Additionally, Yousof pointed out that regardless of whether or not students end up with careers in government or politics, civic education is beneficial for life in general. “Doing civic engagement through the school itself and through other opportunities that Ashley and I have had has instilled confidence—confidence that you can invoke change,” Yousof said.

The idea that civic education in school can inspire students to become active citizens in their communities is a major theme at John Bowne. The plaintiffs and lawyers of Cook v. Raimondo hope to replicate this model in schools across the U.S. In Providence, Aleita and Ahmed were able to learn about activism and civic engagement through PSU, and Wood commends nonprofit organizations like PSU for enriching students’ lives. “However, that doesn’t relieve the public school system from the obligation to provide the baseline, to provide a robust and adequate civic education,” Wood told The Politic. Only then can students “build on that foundation and follow their own areas of interest,” she added.

Civic education teaches students that the judicial branch is powerful—and responsible for interpreting the law and making long-lasting, precedent-setting decisions. The plaintiffs and lawyers hope that eventually, the U.S. Supreme Court will recognize the value of civic education and declare that it is a right for all students. “When you leave high school, you should know the basic things you need to know for the real world,” said Aleita. “If you don’t know what’s going on, how can you change it?”