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How Hawaii Is Making a Commitment to Civics Education

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I saw an article the other day that really piqued my interest: How Hawaii Schools are Rethinking Social Studies.

One of the great things about working at C-SPAN was meeting social studies teachers from around the country. It turns there are a lot of different ways to organize the social studies curriculum. Otherwise, it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that your state is “normal.”

But I’d never met a social studies teacher from Hawaii. As it turns out, they’ve got a pretty cool set of course requirements for high school social studies.

High School Graduation Requirements in Hawaii

Hawaii has pretty extensive graduation requirements for high school, and one area where they really stand apart is in social studies.

Hawaii requires its high school students to complete four full years of social studies in order to graduate. They take one year of U.S. History and Government and one year of World History and Culture. These two survey courses give them a foundation in history and cultures of the world. This seems pretty basic and it certainly isn’t out of the ordinary.

The next two years are the interesting part. Students take one semester of Modern History of Hawaii followed by one semester of Participation in Democracy. Both of these are great choices for emphasizing civics. Modern history is important for understanding current policy, and this is often ignored in survey courses. Participation in Democracy emphasizes, at least in theory, things like project based learning and simulations of democracy.

The second of those two years is fulfilled by an elective course. This will vary by school, and I’m sure some schools offer their kids much more in the way of options that others. But this is a great potential breakdown of course requirements for social studies.

It’s noteworthy that Hawaii requires four years of social studies but only three years of math and science. I love it, but it almost seems a bit backwards in the era of STEM.

Man sitting with a laptop on his lap and 0's and 1's covering the image.
Remember, we’re not all going to be software engineers. But the vast majority of our kids are going to grow up to be citizens in a participatory democracy.

The other thing that strikes me as curious is that students are only required to do one year of physical education and one semester of health. In New Jersey, kids take phys ed and health every year.

What Is Participation in Democracy?

Is this a standard civics course or is this really about participation? Does this fulfill the spirit of the Illinois civics law, incorporating simulations of democracy and service learning? Or is it just a series of facts about government?

I browsed around at some course syllabi to see what was included. Here’s one course description:

This course provides opportunities for students to actively engage in civic discourse and participation. It engages students in the examination of government, political activity, contemporary issues, decision-making and the democratic process. This course focuses on the principles, values and ideals of American constitutional government, global interactions and interconnections, and issues and roles of American citizens. Students are expected to take an active role as citizens and use the tools and methods of social scientists in their inquiry.

So far, so good. The syllabus also indicates that the students will participate in a Civic Action Project, which is one form of civics-related project based learning.

But Is It all Good…?

On the other hand, the textbook is Magruder’s American Government. This is a thoroughly uninspiring, standard textbook. But I guess a class has to have a textbook. (Does it, tho?)

Sidebar: Why does the description for Magruder’s American Government on Amazon say that it “bridges time-tested best practices, curriculum standard expectations, and technology to help prepare students to be college and career ready” … but makes no mention of making them ready to be citizens?

In any case, this particular teacher’s class looks pretty cool. It looks like a good balance of some information about how government works and some opportunities for kids to actually participate.

Then, I also found a course syllabus that looked like a straight up, cut-and-dry, “institutions of government” kind of civics course. It didn’t mention anything about project based learning, service learning, or other opportunities for students to actually practice being citizens.

What Does It Look Like On the Ground?

I think it’s safe to say that there is some variability in the quality of the actual course as students experience it. You’d have to do some on the ground research to get a sense of how variable that is. Unless someone has some funding to send me to Hawaii to hang out for a year… we’ll have to put that on the shelf for now.

Landcape photo of Hawaii with a valley and mountains.
Hawaii is pretty, isn’t it?

But the requirement for the course creates a space for good civics education and it facilitates it. By contrast, the standards and model curriculum in New Jersey place a lot of barriers in the way of good civics education. And as a result, I would expect that students in Hawaii have a much better chance of having a good experience with civics education before they graduate high school.

Oh, and if you happen to be a social studies teacher in Hawaii who teaches Participation in Democracy, you should definitely head over to the submission guidelines and share your story. That would make one rockin’ civic spotlight feature.

Balancing Requirements with Student Choice

One of the arguments that is typically used against increasing the requirements for graduation is that it limits students choices. Students need flexibility in their schedule to take courses that appeal to them, performing arts, and other electives.

The social studies course sequence in Hawaii does a good job of balancing rigorous requirements with student choice. It requires students to take four full years of social studies, but it offers them an option of electives for one year. In theory, this would allow students to take a course in psychology, sociology, government, ethnic studies, or something else.

Of course, the reality of this would depend on the course offerings in each specific school. But it’s good way to balance the two competing priorities at the policy level.

Can We Learn from Hawaii’s Example?

Just because your state has always done social studies one way, doesn’t make that the right way. Just because New Jersey has always (for a while, anyway) required three years of history doesn’t mean that that’s the “normal” way to learn history.

Maybe we have something to learn from Hawaii. They’re not the only state that requires a civics course, but I’d hazard a guess that their civics course has one of the best titles around.

What do you think: is it time to bring “Participation in Democracy” to New Jersey? Would you bring it to your state if you could?


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