F. Chris Curran
Originally published in the Gainesville Sun
At the end of January, Governor DeSantis announced that the Department of Education had completed its review of the K-12 academic standards and made recommendations for revisions. This is the latest in what has been a year long process moving towards the adoption of the new B.E.S.T. standards, a replacement for the Common Core-based Florida Standards.
While the standards, as before, focus predominantly on mathematics and reading, a unique component is an emphasis on embedded civics instruction throughout the K-12 years.
As an educational researcher, I am encouraged to see a renewed emphasis on the civic purpose of education. Over the last several decades, standardized testing and high-stakes accountability have served to narrow the focus of education to an outsized-emphasis on mathematics and reading. Even in the elementary schools of our nation’s capital, social studies has been allocated less than 25 minutes per day compared to two hours for literacy.
This increased emphasis on civics education is important. Prior work has found that a majority of Americans would fail the U.S. citizenship test, and other scholars have, for decades, sounded the alarm of declining civic involvement among Americans.
It is encouraging, then, to see a return to what many perceive as one of the original purposes of public education – an informed citizenry capable of participating in civic duties. Indeed, Thomas Jefferson once discussed education as the “key-stone of the arch of our government”. Early and consistent civics instruction will support students readiness for the civics end of course assessment currently taken in middle school.
That said, if this push for civics education is to achieve its goal, it is important to ask whether the civics elements embedded in the standards reflect the students they serve.
Public schools in the United States are increasingly diverse – racially, ethnically, linguistically, socio-economically, and on a number of other dimensions. In fact, over half of US students are now racial minorities. While many of the founding fathers and early public school advocates envisioned education as an important part of the fabric of America, we also know that they too often envisioned it only for a select set of students – typically white, male, and otherwise privileged.
It is important that the embedded civics content in Florida’s new education standards reflect the diversity of our students. Such content should celebrate the virtues of our country but not shy away from critically engaging with the racism, structural inequalities, and discriminatory policy decisions that have disenfranchised many.
To this end, it is important that the suggested material for embedding civics in our schools represents a diverse set of perspectives and authors.
Unfortunately, in the standards, white authors are disproportionately represented in the proposed civics readings list. In fact, among the authors of the recommended civics readings between kindergarten and high school, I could identify only around five people of color out of about seventy authors. Similarly, the content of the suggested readings appears to provide limited opportunities, especially in the earlier grades, to critically engage with our nation’s history.
Research shows that representation matters for student outcomes. Students should see their stories and the stories of people that resemble them in the materials they engage with in school.
While teachers will still have flexibility to integrate other materials into their teaching, the guidance of state standards and the recommended readings therein set a tone for what is valued in the classroom. To this end, it is important to look for ways to increase the diversity of stories and authors represented.
At the end of the day, if we want a citizenry that is civically engaged, we cannot overlook that our country has historically, through policy and practice, prevented the civic involvement of certain groups of people. While a greater emphasis on civics in our state standards is a step in the right direction, we must be sure it does so in a way that recognizes the value and experiences of all of Florida’s students and demonstrates this through the content and authors chosen.