Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court, John G. Roberts, Jr., closed out the 2010s and welcomed the 2020s with powerful words in his 2019 Year-End Report on the Federal Judiciary:
Civic education is not a checkbox of a course requirement, but a lifelong investment – starting in early childhood. To ensure equitable access to civic learning, our entire understanding of the resources needed for civic education needs to be completely restructured.
“Civic education, like all education, is a continuing enterprise and conversation. Each generation has an obligation to pass on to the next, not only a fully functioning government responsive to the needs of the people, but the tools to understand and improve it.”
Chief Justice Roberts describes the Judicial Branch’s use of its resources to support civic education nationwide, with numerous examples from circuit courts to the Supreme Court Historical Society’s summer teachers’ institute. Chief Justice Roberts writes, “Judges from coast to coast have made their courthouses available as forums for civic education.” It is powerful to read of so many civic learning programs supporting educators and students, which suggested to me a “call-to-action” for all professions to re-imagine their work around the opportunity to provide civic engagement for all learners. Think of any profession and dream what is possible when it is focused on serving its customers, building its products — and creating civic learning resources as part of its core mission and responsibilities. We could truly realize a society where vital civic principles — including the roles and responsibilities of active citizenship within our local communities, state and country – are shared values across every organization and profession.
Since late 2018, the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS) and other education organizations nationwide have worked with an infographic released by the Council of Chief State School Officers on the impact that “The Marginalization of Social Studies” has had on our students and our country. The infographic describes how the reduction of instructional time, assessment, high-quality instructional resources, and support for teacher professional development have negatively impacted student achievement and academic progress in our country. The graphic’s bold statement is clear: marginalizing the social studies is “an issue of equity for all students.”
In that spirit, I would like to bring us into a new year and decade by expanding upon the profound ideas in Chief Justice Roberts’ report. Civic education is a matter of equity in education. If we are to truly prepare all students for civic life – and provide them with knowledge, skills, and competencies necessary for lifelong inquiry and informed action – then we need to provide equitable instructional time, equitable instructional resources and assessments based on high-quality standards for learning, and equitable access to professional development so that all educators can network together in building stronger civic learning programs.
In the 2010s, we saw positive and effective examples of civic learning in action: state and local curriculum requirements changed to expand civic education; student-centered organizations launched to provide K-12 students with civic learning experiences; general advocacy initiatives emerged to define and advance civic education overall. At NCSS, we started not one, but two, honor societies where middle-level students and high school students engage in vibrant civic learning experiences as part of their high achievement in social studies. Many of these examples take root in different regions and often need more resources, media coverage, and funding to achieve a broad scale for all learners nationwide to access them equitably.
Civic education is not a checkbox of a course requirement, but a lifelong investment — starting in early childhood. To ensure equitable access to civic learning, our entire understanding of the resources needed for civic education needs to be completely restructured. Our education system — both formally in school, and externally through the many supports that exist for learners beyond the standard school day — is ready for a full commitment to equity of access to civic education. We need to build a foundation upon which equity is defined by the four pillars of instructional time, instructional resources, assessment and professional development. When we create such equity, we are talking better access to civic learning, not simply more access.
In the 2010s we defined and studied the issues; in the 2020s, let’s address the challenges, and create equity of access to civic learning for all learners. That’s our big and audacious goal.