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Equity and Civic Learning

National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS) is a proud member of CivXNow, a coalition of non-partisan organizations dedicated to strengthening civic learning and education. The coalition is led by iCivics, and many members met in California earlier this year for a Civic Learning Impact and Measurement Convening. A report was recently released and shared with all NCSS members to foster conversation around the convening’s major topics. I encourage all members to visit the convening agenda, scan the list of discussion questions and speakers, and read the report. At the bottom of the page, you will find the report with three research summaries.

Sometimes when you read a report like this one, you connect to an early talking point, question, or statement, and cannot let go of it. That happened to me with the page 2 headline: “The Field of Civic Education Must Better Reflect Student Diversity.” The next step suggests “Identifying opportunities to shape an equity-first focus in civic education, promoting the lived experiences of young people and engaging with new diverse communities whose work should be viewed as civic actors.” I reflected on the meaning of equity and returned to my previous message, where I shared a recent infographic released by the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) that addresses the marginalization of social studies education as “an issue of equity for all students.” We need to comprehend the word equityin advancing our understanding of civic learning.

We have a definition for equity: a sense of fairness, justice, or impartiality. We may not immediately think of works like “adequate” or “sufficient” as equity; however, equity is distinct from equality, which is defined as “the same amount.” All learners bring unique perspectives and experiences to any classroom, and our learning goals should be framed to balance those perspectives and experiences appropriately to give them voice, which in turn brings a larger discussion and action around what it means to be engaged in a civic issue. We do not bring “the same” perspectives and experiences to school, so we all have varying needs in becoming civic ready, civically engaged, and prepared for civic life.

Easier said than done, right? The challenge posed by the page 2 question and larger definition of equity is that there does not exist a standard definition of “civic learning.” Instead, we first must reflect the vastness of student thought and experience that come through the classroom door every morning. What it takes to be civic ready, civically engaged, and prepared for civic life to each student will be unique to her/his lived experience, personal ideas, current needs, and future goals. How do we make time for greater equity in civic learning? 

We should not simply “make time” for something that is arguably the fundamental purpose of education; rather, we should re-shape our entire approach to learning and teaching to foster equity for civic learning. That brings us back to the infographic. We begin to re-shape our approach when our schools dedicate social studies instructional time every day starting in kindergarten, create a thoughtful assessment of civic skills and content, commit to support professional learning for our educators, and use high-quality curriculum and materials. Taken together, these four practices are achievable when they become a school’s primary focus.

@NCSSNetwork has been tweeting news stories from around the nation and world of “social studies in action.” These stories are sometimes classroom- or community-based actions that show how students took charge of civic learning to make a difference. The common thread among our stories is how students connect to their communities to take informed action. Their unique activities are, in part, shaped by the types of communities these students live in, the issues most pressing to them, and the tools they have to work with at the time. All students, teachers, and school communities we highlight are demonstrating civic learning. The act of taking informed action is a pure demonstration of civic engagement and readiness. Doing so based on the unique needs, interests, and resources of their communities is where our focus on equity comes in. Give students the time and space necessary to be engaged in civic learning where they already are.

In our Strategic Plan, NCSS identifies a social studies priority of Inclusiveness: “NCSS encourages, promotes and ensures inclusiveness that reflects society and strengthens civic life.” The way to achieve an inclusive space for learning, in part, is to “Provide opportunities for multiple viewpoints to be shared, supported and respected” and to “Develop and regularly review policies and practices to ensure opportunities for underrepresented groups to actively participate….” (I left out “…in NCSS” intentionally from the last phrase, because it is directly applicable any setting.) A way to be inclusive is to provide for shared expression of multiple perspectives, and to structure a space for all groups and individuals to have a voice at the table. Being more inclusive of student diversity leads to greater equity in civic learning.

What is civic learning? Is it a pillar of the social studies—one of our core disciplines? Is it knowledge, skills, and disposition embedded across all subject areas—like literacy? Or is it both? I posed this question during the convening to several people around me, because the notion that we can measure civic learning outcomes is compelling to me as someone who has worked with learning standards, assessments, and K-12 curriculum scope and sequence documents for his entire professional life. 

Our national conversation around civic learning has been expanding significantly in recent years. According a recent post, seven states are currently debating legislative bills for civics education. As we begin to fully realize how much civic learning is a foundation in a child’s well-rounded education, we now turn to how we measure the impact and outcomes of a high-quality civic education. It is only logical that, on page 2 of that discussion, we frame civic learning as an issue of equity. Let’s discuss how equity is an issue of civic learning, as well.