Re-inventing Civics Education – 3

Re-inventing Civics Education – 3

From the new blog…

Whatever one thinks of our current “Age of Accountability” in public education, it’s not particularly controversial to point out that the American public-school system has historically flexed and reformed to meet accountability requirements.

While we can argue over whether that system was assigned the right priorities, or over the consequences (intended and otherwise) of prioritizing standards and testing over other alternatives, educational stakeholders responded to calls for accountability by creating new generations of standards, then developing curricula and paying for testing to teach and assess those new standards.

That being the case, might a similar accountability strategy help us push ahead the mission discussed at the conference mentioned in the first part of this series: reestablishing and advancing civic education in America?

There is some empirical (or, at least data-backed anecdotal) data to go on as we try to answer this question. For example, the director of Social Studies education at a large district who presented at the meeting told us about an accountability style civics test all students in his district must take. This test is largely about civics knowledge and, like most standardized tests, consists entirely of multiple-choice questions. Despite the limitations of these sorts of evaluations, however, the very existence of an accountability measure has had a number of positive unplanned results (demonstrating that unintended consequences are not always negative).

For instance, the fact that students would be tested and teachers and schools held accountable for results upped the interest in social-studies education generally within his district. And teachers, searching for ways to teach material that would be on the test in interesting and engaging ways, found a number of resources that allowed them to teach far more than just subjects covered in the assessment.

Similar district-based standardized testing could potentially trigger similar positive results while also pushing accountability testing down to a level (the district) able to take into account local civic knowledge and issues. But if the goal is to get teachers motivated to leverage existing resources (or create their own) that allow them to teach civics in ways that connect with students, why not make that the priority, rather than hoping some standardized test will trigger this desired result?

One can’t get more local than the classroom, after all. In fact, early-grade social-studies education (reflected in most state standards) uses the classroom as a proxy for society in order to teach young kids how to listen, compromise, share space and engage in joint decision-making. In later grades, classroom teachers can easily implement civics knowledge quizzes (multiple-choice or otherwise), but they can also implement more complex performance measures designed to teach and assess higher-order skills (like the ability to discuss controversial issues in a civil fashion), and even evaluate student civic engagement beyond the school.

Pursuing a teacher/classroom-centered civics strategy would prioritize teacher training (both pre-service and in-service) that could include preparing teachers to teach and assess not just civic knowledge, but also skills and dispositions important for engaged citizenship. Given limited pressures on social studies teachers to conform with hardened content requirements or testing regimes, social studies could serve as the subject where advanced training on locating and integration educational resources and wide-ranging assessment techniques can become the norm, both in ed school methods classes and professional development programs.

A teacher-focused civics strategy would likely come at a cost, however: the inability to statistically compare student achievement from classroom to classroom, school to school, district to district and state to state. But given the localism of civics (not to mention the cost and questionable value of such broad-based comparability in other subjects), it’s not entirely clear how much we should sacrifice for the sake of monitoring student achievement through standardized (possibly inferior) measures.

Such a choice does not mean walking away from the principle of accountability entirely. For while standardized student testing gets the most attention (and resources) compared with other accountability efforts, there are additional ways teachers and schools are held accountable for meeting policy goals beyond regular, standardized student assessment.

For example, many programs designed to improve the scope and quality of technology in education require schools to report on their technology infrastructure, levels of staff and faculty training, and other factors important to successful integration of technology into the classroom. Could advocates for civics education provide similar resources to evaluate the quality of “infrastructure” for civics ed (such as levels of teacher preparation, availability of resources, and support within the school and wider community)?

The alternatives described in this post are just a few of many strategies that could inform reform in civics education likely to play out in multiple diverse jurisdictions over the coming years. Coming up with an answer (or – in our decentralized education system – answers) will come about through argumentation and deliberation, two critical-thinking skills that also happen to represent prized civic virtues.