Educating for Civic Engagement

Support social studies education to have a positive impact on multiple literacies.

Topics: Literacy, Curriculum and Instruction

Reading, writing, ’rithmetic … and representative government? Alongside language and numerical literacy, let’s not forget the literacy upon which the great American public school system was founded—civic literacy, or the knowledge, skills, and dispositions necessary for informed and engaged participation in our self-governing society.

This was the vital purpose Horace Mann envisioned for the nation’s public education system. As iCivics Founder and Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor noted more recently, “The practice of democracy is not passed down through the gene pool. It must be taught and learned by each new generation.”

The good news is that the essential literacies on which this issue of Principal magazine focuses are not mutually exclusive. Citing a 2020 study published by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, authors Adam Tyner and Sarah Kabourek say that social studies not only improves more traditional literacies within English language arts (ELA) but also is “the only subject with a clear, positive, and statistically significant effect on reading improvement.”

This makes sense. The kind of analysis and reasoning essential to social studies connects to reading and writing. Likewise, social studies provides fertile ground for foundational literacy skills to flourish, being rife with relevance to students’ lives and opportunities for practical application. What better way to hone reading comprehension than to have students explore primary source materials, grapple with current issues, and gain information literacy skills?

What’s more, the literacy gains achieved through social studies are even greater for “girls, students from less affluent families, and students from families where English was not the main home language,” write Tyner and Kabourek in “Social Studies Instruction and Reading Comprehension: Evidence From the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study.” In a country where liberty, justice, and equality are cherished ideals, we should champion the fact that increased time on higher-quality social studies not only addresses literacy but also can close long-standing gaps.

A Need for Guidance

Unfortunately, there is an astounding lack of guidance for K–5 teachers around social studies, says a new RAND Corporation report, “The Missing Infrastructure for Elementary K–5 Social Studies Instruction.” As far as instructional time goes, elementary teachers spend less time on social studies than they do on ELA and math. Interestingly, however, these same teachers spend more time planning for the little time spent on actual social studies instruction, which can be attributed to factors such as a lack of supports, shared teaching practices, or agreed-upon curricular materials for the subject matter.

For this and other reasons, we must rethink how we approach the acquisition of literacies. Tyner and Kabourek recommend increased time for high-quality social studies instruction at the elementary level and ensuring that ELA instruction is infused with content-rich texts and topics. Teachers also benefit from supports such as district- or school-approved instructional materials, professional learning, and a campus ethos that communicates the importance of civics instruction.

“In elementary school spaces, concern about test scores has caused schools to drastically reduce social studies instructional time and investment in resources, when research shows that the authentic practice of literacy skills as part of social studies learning is what truly has an impact,” says Shannon Salter, a social studies teacher and curriculum designer in the Allentown (Pennsylvania) School District who serves as the teacher representative on the Educating for American Democracy Implementation Consortium.

The challenge to creating classroom instructional time for social studies is the trend toward spending more time on subjects assessed through high-stakes testing—a theme that has only been exacerbated by the need to address learning loss as a result of the disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. A divisive political environment hasn’t helped.

Disagreement is a feature of democracy, not a bug. But we can’t afford to let disagreements derail the type of rich and rigorous civic learning experiences that students deserve and our constitutional democracy demands. And that’s especially true today, when students need additional time to enhance their literacy skills, make up for learning loss, become better consumers of information, and practice skills of independent thinking.

The EAD Initiative

The Educating for American Democracy (EAD) initiative opens doors to such conversations, inviting young people to engage in the nation’s historical and ongoing debates productively. More than 300 EAD contributors demonstrated this kind of civic friendship across differences by bringing together a mix of academic and professional expertise from diverse geographic, demographic, ideological, disciplinary, and pedagogic backgrounds to provide a roadmap to excellence in civics and history education.

The EAD Roadmap promotes reckoning with the “hard” histories of the U.S. and a shared recognition of the unique achievements of American democracy. The goal is for the EAD Roadmap to be both useful and usable by a wide array of educators and practitioners in addressing challenging topics across diverse intellectual backgrounds and perspectives—and pilot implementations are showing its promise.

EAD offers design challenges such as:

  • How can we integrate the perspectives of Americans from different backgrounds when narrating a history of the United States and explaining the philosophical foundations of American constitutional democracy?
  • How do we help students make sense of the paradox that Americans continuously disagree about the ideal shape of self-government but also agree to preserve shared institutions?
  • How can we offer an account of U.S. constitutional democracy that is simultaneously honest about the past without falling into cynicism and appreciative of the founding without tipping into adulation?

EAD in Action

In partnership with educators, iCivics has spent the past two years developing high-quality instructional materials and professional learning that translate the philosophical guidance of EAD into meaningful classroom experiences that foster civic literacy while promoting other fundamental literacies.

For K–5 classrooms, Private i History Detectives offers a supplemental inquiry-based curriculum using primary sources organized by grade level and topic. The fun, whole-class, mystery-themed units illuminate important and often untold stories while helping students develop lifelong inquiry skills.

Lessons prepare students for the increasing complexity and depth of the relevant historical and contemporary issues they will encounter as they matriculate through subsequent grades. The mysteries build on students’ natural curiosity, representing a departure from the “find the right answer” and rote memorization approaches typically experienced during social studies instruction.

For the middle grades, iCivics is currently piloting an inquiry-based, primary source-rich, and project-​embedded U.S. History I curriculum that prioritizes disciplinary literacy, deeper content knowledge, culturally responsive practices, and viewpoint pluralism. We look forward to making all of these materials publicly available as open educational resources.

As our colleagues Ashley Berner and Christina Ross wrote in a recent opinion piece for The 74, “Kids need an enthralling encounter with the perennial questions that human societies must address, using rich materials that animate otherwise theoretical questions seen through the eyes of human beings across time and place and into our own: What is the proper relationship between the individual and the state? What does a ‘just society’ look like? Who decides?”

The EAD Roadmap starts with big questions like these, inviting students to find answers through the kind of reasoning and analysis of sources that are both part and parcel to social studies and essential to enhancing literacy across subject areas.

The Principal Promotes

Principals play an essential role in promoting civic literacy in schools. This is especially true at the elementary level, where social studies has been deprioritized and neglected for decades. The RAND study affirms previous research on the important role principals play and asserts that their “own teaching background, familiarity with what constitutes high-quality instructional practice in this content area, and personal beliefs about the importance of social studies instruction relative to other school priorities likely all contribute to how social studies instruction is operationalized.”

“Teachers need administrators to support a successful shift to greater social studies learning—especially in elementary school—[with] sufficient time for instruction and additional time for preparation,” Salter says. “Teachers also need to be supported with high-quality instructional resources—especially resources that focus on developing critical historic and civic thinking skills.”

School leaders can support civic literacy across resourcing, curriculum, recruitment, professional development, assessment, and partnership. The most crucial area, however, is in visioning—communicating to your faculty, staff, and students that civic literacy is just as important as the forms of literacy we most commonly associate with the term.

Education in the U.S. has a foundational function in ensuring a key literacy—namely, civic literacy that ensures that kids gain the knowledge, skills, and dispositions to be informed and engaged participants in our self-governing society. We cannot wait until fifth grade or later to begin laying the foundation. We must start with our youngest learners and grow, nurture, and deepen this foundation throughout the educational lifespan of each and every student in the U.S.

Priorities and needs might vary by district and state, but we must all commit to the long-term effort to ensure that education lives up to its civic mission. The great thing is that we don’t have to choose between competing interests. An investment in civic education will pay off in greater overall literacy for students in the elementary grades and beyond.

Emma Humphries is chief education officer for iCivics, a nonprofit organization that provides educational online games and instructional materials to promote civic education.