We hear a lot about the bad news: Fewer than 8.2 percent of eligible voters ages 18–24 turned out in the 2014 general election; most Americans cannot name the three branches of government; many young people do not think their civic involvement is worthwhile. But there are pockets of good news all around us. More schools are building on the old adage, “I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand.” We call this “action civics,” and we know it works.
Here in Sacramento County, our Action Civics Initiative, comprising 12 teams of teachers in five districts, has a unified vision: to integrate civic awareness, skills and engagement across the curriculum; empower students to identify local issues, develop strategies and become change agents in their communities; and equip the next generation with the skills they need for college, career and civic life.
Every day in Sacramento County, schools are moving away from dry memorization of facts and, in doing so, seeing students ignite their own civic interests when they are encouraged to ask compelling questions, apply disciplinary tools and concepts, evaluate sources and gather evidence, communicate conclusions and take informed action. They begin to build the tools and dispositions to help solve societal problems. These teaching methods help students become better communicators, problem solvers and critical thinkers. They prepare students for the 21st century workplace, and for civic life and involvement in the democratic process.
Here’s how it works: Over 40 percent of Sacramento County’s Action Civics teachers are from disciplines other than history, civics or government. Through this initiative, students are not just learning civics as a stand-alone subject, often relegated to the last semester of their senior year. Instead, they are learning how to turn civics concepts into action at every grade level, across the entire curriculum. Math, language arts and science teachers are integrating civics as a tool to teach students how they can take action to address societal and local problems. For example, students in science classes discuss the role of government and what they can do to address environmental issues. Science teachers team up with history and social science teachers to guide students in Socratic seminars around current events that might focus on relevant topics such as the drought, clean water and the food supply.
Much of the support for this work began just two years ago, when Chief Justice Tani G. Cantil-Sakauye convened the Civic Learning CA Summit to assess the state of K–12 civic learning in our schools. The summit led to the appointment of the California Task Force on K–12 Civic Learning, which issued its report in August of 2014. The Power of Democracy Steering Committee, a nonpartisan statewide group, has since focused the attention of education, law and business leaders on making all K–12 schools — in all communities — places of high-quality civic learning and engagement across curriculum.
Since February of last year, the Steering Committee has activated Civic Learning Partnerships in six counties throughout the state, each led by business, education and judicial leaders. Sacramento County’s Civic Learning Partnership — led by Justice Ronald Robie, Roger Niello and myself — is working to support school districts in implementing the Six Proven Practices in Civic Learning (six core activities that are proven to directly improve the quality and effectiveness of civic learning in schools). These practices are: classroom instruction in government, history, law and economics; service learning projects tied to curriculum; simulations of democratic processes; extracurricular activities that have a strong civic dimension; student participation in school governance; and discussions of current events and controversial topics.
The Civic Learning Partnerships have been working with school districts throughout the state to pass Civic Learning Resolutions — district-wide pledges to turn school districts into centers of civic learning that embody the Six Proven Practices and put directed effort toward their implementation. Six Sacramento County school districts already have passed Civic Learning Resolutions, with more coming soon.
In Sacramento County, we are making great progress toward putting civic awareness and engagement at the forefront of the learning experience. Elk Grove’s Elizabeth Pinkerton Middle School created a House of Representatives, bringing together nearly 50 students each month to work with site administration on issues important to the students and vital to a positive culture on campus. The Language Academy of Sacramento, in the Sacramento City Unified School District, is empowering students to select and tackle community issues in an effort to make their society a better place. They are highlighting the need for better utilization of food waste on campus through a comprehensive recycling and composting program. Rio Linda High School, in the Twin Rivers Unified School District, is reorganizing the structure of all service and academic clubs, so that they complete a meaningful service project important to the Rio Linda community. At Monterey Trail High School, in the Elk Grove Unified School District, students researched and analyzed Middle East current events. They were placed in groups by topic and given roles as economic analysts, social photographers, political analysts and videographers to create presentations and YouTube videos.
By learning from and replicating the practices that work in these schools, students in all of our K–12 schools can be given equal access to experiences that inspire civic engagement and prepare them to become productive members of society and the future workforce.
Our work is off to a great start, but we have far to go. This year, much of the groundwork has been laid to elevate civic learning. Now, it is time to expand on that work, to focus on ensuring that we ignite all young people’s interest in civic engagement while they are eager to learn. And we must apply the same level of commitment to all schools that we see working at our Action Civics Initiative school sites.
At a seminar I attended, Ellen Lagemann, former dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education said, “Education is not about just how to study and reflect, but on how to take action.” Here in Sacramento — where education, law, business and policy-making intersect — we have the unique opportunity to ensure that all K–12 students experience the kind of relevant, high-quality, hands-on civic learning that shows them how to take action, and that their action is worthwhile. Together, we can protect our democracy and help the next generation of leaders build a better tomorrow.