Advancing Accountability in Civic Education: Florida, Tennessee lead the way

Posted by on January 24, 2013 in Blog, featured | Comments Off

State Civic Education Policies: Advancing Accountability

The following is a recap of a session on civic education during the Education Commission of the States’ Winter Commissioners Meeting, held December 11-12 in Denver. Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg, lead researcher at CIRCLE, moderated the discussion, which detailed recent legislation related to civic learning and education that was passed in Florida and Tennessee.

L. Douglas Dobson, Executive Director, Lou Frey Institute of Politics and Government
Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg, Lead Research, Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning
Janis Adams Kyser, Executive Director, Tennessee Center for Civic Learning and Engagement


By Brady Delander

The importance of civic learning and engagement across all grade levels was summarized clearly and concisely by retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor in the 2012 report, “Guardian of Democracy: The Civic Mission of Schools.”

“The better educated our citizens are, the better equipped they will be to preserve the system of government we have. And we have to start with the education of our nation’s young people,” said O’Connor, adding that this knowledge of government has to be learned and understood by each generation. “And we have some work to do.”

As important as that message is, the reality of what is required in classrooms around the country can vary widely. While it sounds positive that 49 states and the District of Columbia require high school students to complete at least one social studies course before graduation, only nine of those states insist that students actually pass the class. It could be argued that ground has been lost in recent years. For example, only 21 states currently require a state-designed social studies test, a drop of 38% from 34 states in 2001.

That’s just related to the wide-range of subjects that fall under social studies, and it goes without saying that civic learning stretches beyond social studies. There are, however, compelling examples of state policy on the books today that can provide a blueprint for how other states can craft and implement meaningful legislation.

During a session hosted by the National Center for Learning and Citizenship, Dobson, Kawashima-Ginsberg, and Adams Kyser—three experts in the field—detailed the status of civic education policy across the country, including the innovative ways states such as Florida and Tennessee are moving forward with accountability structures.

In Tennessee, legislation was signed into law in 2012 requiring that civics education be included in the public schools curriculum assessed by Local Educational Agencies. The bill aims to give students the skills they need to be better informed about how the government operates while guiding young people toward becoming better, more engaged citizens.

Students in the state now are required to take at least three credits of social studies or civics classes and must complete a portfolio of civic work and community service-learning requirements.

“I’ve talked to business owners who said they spoke with young people at the Einstein-level of math and science who could not get through an interview,” Adams Kyser said. “They do not have the social skills, the 21st century skills, that they need. We need to prepare students for college, career, and citizenship.”

In Florida, the Legislature in 2010 enacted one of the most sweeping mandates for civics education in the nation, the Justice Sandra Day O’Connor Civics Education Act. This law created a middle school program capped by a high-stakes exam that all students must pass before advancing from the 7th grade to 8th grade. It is an encompassing program, highlighting the roles of government from the federal to local level as well as the functions of the three branches of government, among other topics.

“The approach we took in Florida is a little bit different than what Tennessee did,” said Dobson, highlighting the required exam.

In addition to the high-stakes exam at the end of middle school, other key provisions of the Florida law include the requirement that the reading portion of language arts curriculum incorporate civics education content for all grade levels and the inclusion of civics education end-of-course assessment data in determining school grades.

Kawashima-Ginsberg delved further into the topic of testing, examining the apparent value of requiring exams while acknowledging that the subject could become stale if the assessment is implemented poorly.

“Testing has the obvious advantage of making sure that civics get taught in America’s classroom, because otherwise people fear that civics will be pushed to the back of teachers’ and administrators’ minds” Kawashima-Ginsberg said. “But it comes with price. For example, civics could be taught for test, and it could become uninspiring, static and irrelevant quickly if the assessment isn’t designed well.”

She added that not testing in civics might be a problem because it can drop off the course requirement. But no testing requirement might mean that teachers can be more creative, use outside materials, discuss current events, and engage in other proven practices such as simulation and service-learning. To be able to do these things well, though, teachers need training.  Currently, there is a shortage in that area.

When discussing service-learning, another issue simply is understanding the true meaning of the term.

“Service-learning is not doing feel-good activities. Service-learning has a method to it,” Adams Kyser said. “Is it great to take food at Thanksgiving and Christmas to people who are hungry? Absolutely. That is a feel-good activity. But the bigger question on civic accountability is, ‘Why are people in my community hungry?’

“There are many challenges out there, but I think we are up to the challenge.”

Brady Delander, an assistant on the NCLC staff, can be reached at or 303.299.3622.

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