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This Week in Civics: Scholastic, the First Amendment, ESSA, and California

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Here’s a quick round-up of civics-related news from around the country this week. There’s a new online text from Scholastic, stuff related to free speech on college campuses, an op-ed about funding ESSA, and a new civics education law in California.

A New Online Civics Text from Scholastic

First up, we have a new online resource. Scholastic launched an online text to help your students learn about civics. The text is titled “We the People,” which is not to be confused with the “We the People” curriculum developed by the Center for Civic Education.

This is a media enriched e-text that includes links to articles and videos. It seems to provide a good overview of topics in civics education. There are two versions of the text – one for elementary school students and one for middle and high school students. The text includes sections on the structure and principles of government, media literacy, and ways that students can be engaged.

While it is pretty, the formatting is very much designed for a large screen. I can open it on my phone, but there’s no easy way to zoom in. I don’t think a tablet screen would be sufficient either. On a computer there are better tools for zooming and annotating the text, but I think you’d have trouble using it on a smaller Chromebook or laptop. I’m sitting at a 21.5 inch iMac desktop, and I’ve got to put the text on full screen to read it comfortably.

The other downside is that there don’t seem to be any accompanying lesson plan ideas or teacher instructions. It’s a nice text that you can use to supplement a social studies class and incorporate more civics, but you’re going to have to do the legwork to plan activities with which to use it.

The First Amendment and Free Speech on Campus

Next, we have some discussion about the first amendment. A columnist in a New Hampshire newspaper complained that students don’t understand the first amendment. Free speech on college campuses has been a hot topic lately, and Congress also got involved with a hearing last week in the Senate.

The column begins with a Brookings Institute study which shows, more or less, that college students don’t understand the first amendment. Specifically, a lot of students don’t realize that hate speech is protected by the first amendment. That’s a knowledge gap that needs to be filled, and if you’re teaching about this you should consider using a C-SPAN Classroom Deliberations lesson on whether hate speech should be protected by the first amendment.

The question that was a little more interesting (and debatable) related to speakers on campus.

The survey also asked if it was acceptable for a student group opposed to a campus speaker to loudly and repeatedly disrupt the speaker by continually shouting so that the speaker cannot be heard and 51 percent said that was acceptable.

There’s a clear implication in this question that the student group is in the wrong and that the campus speaker has a right to speak without being interrupted.

The columnist seems to be implying that any speaker should be free to speak without interruption and protest. And in this case, I think it’s he that misunderstands the first amendment – not the college students.

Funding ESSA and Civics Education

Third, we’ve got some federal policy discussion. An op-ed in The Hill focused on provisions of the Every Student Succeeds Act that support civics education. When ESSA was passed in 2015, it contained provisions to support innovative forms of professional development for civics education.

This funding, in the form of the American History and Civics National Activities Grant, was supposed to set aside money for organizations to offer intense professional development for teachers to better incorporate civics into their classroom. There’s a separate grant for student enrichment programs that can also incorporate civics.

But, the law was never fully funded and this grant program didn’t live up to its potential. The authors claim that out of a promised $1.6 billion, only $10 million was actually appropriated.

They also point out that the first recipient of the grant focuses on professional development in history – not civics. Which is just another example of how civics is often treated as the unwanted stepchild in the social studies family.

California’s New Civics Education Law

California currently has a system where students can earn “seals” for their diplomas. There’s a “Merit” seal for mastery of the general high school curriculum, along with a “Bilingual” seal for mastering a second language. A law passed in October created a new seal to recognize mastery of civics.

The requirements for earning this seal won’t be finalized until 2020. The Superintendent of Public Instruction is in charge of delineating those requirements and submitting it for approval by the State Board of Education.

The general requirements laid out in the law include a) successful completion of history, government, and civics courses, b) character education, and c) voluntary participation in community service or extracurricular activities.

It’s an interesting idea. It offers another potential policy solution to place greater emphasis on civics education without specifically mandating what goes into the curriculum. We’ll have to wait a few years, but I look forward to seeing how this works out.

However, one would surely have to question what the value of this seal or endorsement is. If it doesn’t carry any weight with future schools or employers, are students going to strive for it?

Anything Else Going On?

Those are the big stories I found in the news this week to related to civics education. Did I miss anything? If so, drop a comment below and let me know.

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