New State Law Requires Civics Education in Middle and High School

Dec 18, 2018

A 2017 study found that civics education in American schools has been stagnant since the 1990s. That same study also found that fewer Americans are participating in unions, churches and political parties. 

WCAI's Miranda Suarez reports both educators and lawmakers in Massachusetts want to change that with a new state law and curriculum frameworks. 

Bourne High School history teacher Lisa DiBiasio projected a poem on a screen in her classroom.

“‘Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free,’” she read.

The line is from “The New Colossus,” the poem on the base of the Statue of Liberty. She asked her class who counts as a member of those huddled masses, and later, whether the United States should accept them.

Morgan Goodwin’s hand went up.

“Of course you feel empathy. But pragmatically, you can’t always allocate enough resources,” Goodwin said. “It’s just not fair to let someone in and they wouldn’t have a fair shot. They’re fighting an uphill battle.”

But her classmate Logan Hawkes disagreed, saying Americans should welcome immigrants as problem-solvers.

“There’s also people like Nikola Tesla and Albert Einstein that came in,” he said. “And they were immigrants as well. And they had great ideas and then revolutionized the way things worked.”

State lawmakers and education officials are taking a two-part approach to bring discussions like this one to every history and social studies classroom in Massachusetts.

In June, the state’s education department updated its curriculum framework to recommend a full-year civics course for eighth graders.

The change goes hand-in-hand with a new civics education law that passed last month.

Starting next school year, topics like local history and the branches of government will become mandatory learning throughout a student’s education.

Students will also have to complete a civics project in both middle and high school.

Former Senate President Harriette Chandler sponsored the law because she was surprised by how little students know about government. And if they don’t know about government, she said, their discussions could end up as angry as the ones happening in national politics today.

“We’re so polarized as a country, and we want to break through that polarization. You can disagree without being disagreeable,” Chandler said. “But you better understand why you disagree with them.”

The law aims to make civics education uniform across the state, Chandler said.

The new requirements are expressly non-partisan, something Governor Charlie Baker insisted on before he signed it.

The focus on nonpartisanship should help lawmakers establish a fund to pay for the curriculum changes, Chandler said, because she wants the money to come from donations, not taxes.

“If you understand that it’s bipartisan, if you understand that you are just trying to serve an educational purpose here, there should be no problem of getting outside funding for this,” she said.

The legislature has to approve that funding next year.

Bourne schools started working on a new eighth grade civics course this summer, and they will offer it next year regardless of whether or not they get state funding.

Kelly Cook is Bourne’s curriculum director for grades six through 12. She said she likes the state education department’s suggested framework because it encourages student participation instead of rote memorization.

The frameworks also recommend a greater focus on history surrounding race, gender and sexual orientation.

“They definitely offer a more sort of diverse view of history and social studies,” Cook said. “There’s more focus on more different ethnic groups, different perspectives, things like that. So I think that’s a direction we would want to go in anyway.”

But Jack Schneider, an education historian and policy analyst at UMass Lowell, doesn’t see the classroom as the best place to spark civic engagement.

People have been participating in public life less and less, he said, and a few civics lessons are not likely to inspire students to become the next generation of great leaders and lawmakers.

“The effort to solve that through the introduction of what are essentially curricular add-ons are not really going to  make a significant difference,” he said.

Schneider pointed to the students who organized and participated in the March For Our Lives, a protest to encourage legislators to enact stricter gun control. He said students would learn far more by getting out of the classroom to protest like that, or volunteer in local government.

Back at Bourne High School, though, some students say their civics lessons have had a big impact.

Junior Myles Fisher didn’t care current events at all when he started taking a Model UN class last year. Now, he helps lead class debates and is considering a career in politics.

And from what his friends say, he’s not the only one who’s been inspired to pay more attention to what’s going on in the world.

“I have friends on my soccer team, and I’ll see them in school, and they’ll bring up a headline they saw and they’ll be like, ‘Oh, I’ll see you in Model UN, I’m gonna bring that up.’ It happens,” he said.

Now, Fisher likes to research current affairs on his own – preparing for when he enters the ballot box for the first time in 2020.