Tag Archives: civics education

Back to School: What’s Your “Magic Wand” Education Solution? (Part Two)

Photo courtesy of Pixabay for Pexels

Join Ahead of the Heard for a lively back-to-school series expanding on Andy Rotherham’s original Eduwonk post, What’s Your Magic Wand?, featuring reflections on wish-list education solutions heading into the fall from teachers, school leaders, academics, media types, parents, private sector funders, advocates, Bellwarians…you name it.

At Bellwether, we’re focused on the 2021-22 school year ahead but also on what we’ve collectively endured since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s a gross understatement to say that it has been a lot, that mistakes have been made, that many rose to the occasion achieving amazing things for students (while others did not), and that countless lessons were (re)learned. It has been a season where optimism was sometimes elusive and where challenges often seemed insurmountable. 

So we thought we’d do something a little different…and try to have some fun.

We turned to contacts across the country in the education sector and asked them this simple, hopeful question. Answers vary as widely as each participant’s background and will be featured over a two-week span.  

Teachers, students, and families will enter into a 2021-22 school year unlike any other. If you could wave a magic wand, what’s the one education issue you’d address or solve right now, and why?

Laura LoGerfo
Assistant Director, National Assessment Governing Board (submitted as a parent and not on behalf of the Board)

“In order to address massive and unknown variations in learning, my magic wand would have schools and teachers implement universal diagnostic testing, with frequent assessment updates and teaching aimed at attaining fundamental skills and knowledge as swiftly as possible.  

The first step would be to get kids situated in the classroom by establishing a warm and welcoming environment for students to thrive socially, emotionally, and academically. Almost immediately, kids would be given diagnostic assessments to determine their skills and knowledge in reading, math, science, and social studies. There would be no ceiling, no floor, no false constraints of what we mistakenly call ‘grade level,’ and no assumptions of what kids did or did not learn for the last 18 months. 

As a next step, teachers would immediately figure out plans for each kid. Group them by similarity (with flexibility built in as the weeks progress and diagnostic assessments are updated, enabling kids to move up, out, in, or over skill levels/topics) and by skills/knowledge, not age. Assign teachers by strength. Group size matters less than the effectiveness of the instructor. Use technology wisely and strategically.  

I’d incorporate this within my pet idea of ditching twelfth grade completely, except for those who need that year for final refinement of skills and knowledge. Instead, for that ‘senior year,’ 17-year-olds would spend their mornings working on life skills and reflecting on what they do in the afternoons, which would be working, volunteering, or interning (depending on family circumstances) with the elderly, with the young, or in nature. The 17-year-olds who qualify to work with youth would be assigned to assist teachers with tutoring so that differentiated instruction can be a real thing, rather than a myth.”

Mike Goldstein
Parent; School Founder; International Education Leader; General Education Polymath

“With a magic wand, I’d like to give students the choice to consume less K-12 public school, on an individual kid basis, with a very short leash/prove-it approach that’s easily revoked.    

Students would still attend school but less of it, possibly just three days each week. In exchange, individuals (not the school system) would take full accountability for their learning.  

At the elementary levels, students would attend school until lunchtime and then go home every day.  

High schoolers would unobtrusively come and go during class (no need to fake desire to use the bathroom). They could skip a whole class without penalty, while remaining accountable for the learning, and giving the teacher a timely heads-up.  

During these school breaks, high school students would have three choices. First, go to a school-designated lounge. Second, leave campus, go out for walks, or get coffee with a friend (many schools have had open campuses for seniors for a long time). Third, participate in anything fitness-related if a gym class isn’t already using the space/equipment.  

This idea starts with older students but works younger steadily, beginning with the uber-responsible kids and working toward the moderately responsible. It would require parent permission and freedoms would grow if students hit certain milestones.”

Joel Rose
Co-Founder and CEO, New Classrooms

“The pandemic laid bare the profound implications of reforms that were aimed exclusively at optimizing an approach to schooling born in the industrial era. It is time to redesign the way in which we do schooling in ways that by design are mindful of breakthroughs in brain science, that leverage advanced technological tools, that enable learning both within and outside the classroom, that meet the unique strengths and needs of each student, and that systemically support the development of the whole child.”

Yonatan Doron
Chief Partnership Officer, Branching Minds

“The pandemic shined a spotlight on a gross inequity with which most educators were already quite familiar: Many students (particularly students of color and students from rural communities and low-income families) still lack access to consistent, high-speed internet and devices at home. As more and more educational assessments, assignments, programming, and school-home communications have moved online, it’s even more important for policymakers and educational leaders to address the disparity so that all students can succeed.”

Daniel T. Willingham
Professor of Psychology, University of Virginia; Author of Why Don’t Students Like School?

“Modern physical plant for every school.”

Tim Daly
CEO, EdNavigator

“Unfunded teacher pension obligations. They are absorbing increasing amounts of education funding in some of our largest states and preventing badly needed investment and innovation.”

Michael J. Petrilli
President, Thomas B. Fordham Institute

“My magic wand would be teaching dramatically more history, geography, and science in grades K-3 when the kiddos return this fall. That’s because it solves three problems for the price of one! First, alongside teaching foundational reading skills like phonics and phonemic awareness, beefing up kids’ content knowledge (and thus vocabulary) is the best way to boost their reading comprehension. Second, teaching little kids about the wonders of faraway places and faraway times, and the mysteries of the natural world, is the perfect way to avoid the temptation to do terrible, boring, ‘remedial’ education in the wake of the pandemic. And third, the early years are the ideal time to give kids a solid grounding in these subjects, without all of the controversy surrounding topics like Critical Race Theory, given that almost nobody thinks 6-year-olds are ready for all of that.”

Stay tuned for more in our “Magic Wand” series and join the conversation on Twitter @bellwethered.

(Editorial note: Some organizations listed in this series may include past or present clients or funders of Bellwether.)

Back to School: What’s Your “Magic Wand” Education Solution? (Part One)

Photo courtesy of Pixabay for Pexels

Join Ahead of the Heard for a lively back-to-school series expanding on Andy Rotherham’s original Eduwonk post, What’s Your Magic Wand?, featuring reflections on wish-list education solutions heading into the fall from teachers, school leaders, academics, media types, parents, private sector funders, advocates, Bellwarians…you name it.

At Bellwether, we’re focused on the 2021-22 school year ahead but also on what we’ve collectively endured since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s a gross understatement to say that it has been a lot, that mistakes have been made, that many rose to the occasion achieving amazing things for students (while others did not), and that countless lessons were (re)learned. It has been a season where optimism was sometimes elusive and where challenges often seemed insurmountable. 

So we thought we’d do something a little different…and try to have some fun.

We turned to contacts across the country in the education sector and asked them this simple, hopeful question. Answers vary as widely as each participant’s background and will be featured over a two-week span.  

Teachers, students, and families will enter into a 2021-22 school year unlike any other. If you could wave a magic wand, what’s the one education issue you’d address or solve right now, and why?

Lauren M. Rhim
Executive Director and Co-Founder, The Center for Learner Equity

“If I had a magic wand, I would leverage this unique moment to 1) assess where students are and develop robust personalized learning plans for all students, 2) train teachers to effectively differentiate their instruction, and 3) leverage dramatic gains in utilizing technology to bring students back to schools that are actually designed to enable all students, including those with disabilities, to reach their full potential.”

Noelle Ellerson Ng
Associate Executive Director, Advocacy & Governance, AASA, The School Superintendents Association

“I’d fully fund the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act. A fully funded IDEA returns hundreds of millions of dollars back to local district budgets — funds that can be used on general education. Special education students are general education students first, so it would truly be a win-win-win.

I’d also love a magic wand solution to reliable, accurate poverty indicators for education programs as well as increased efficiency in data collection, where federal, state, and local databases could aggregate and share, while also adhering to best practices around student data/privacy and Personally Identifiable Information.”

Chris Minnich
CEO, NWEA

“We have to take this massive infusion of federal cash to reshape how schools are funded. Most schools are driven by the amount of resources they have. Obviously, there are outliers that do more with less, but with more money in the system, it’d be a great chance to hold higher-spending districts harmless, and plus-up the other districts to allow them to compete for talent, among other things.”

Raymond C. Pierce
President and CEO, Southern Education Foundation

“If I could wave a magic wand, the education issue that I would address right now is stability in the governance of our schools and examining ways to improve how our schools are governed. Our public schools cannot improve if they are not governed effectively and efficiently. We need to find, develop, and replicate successful models of school governance that promote local control and community involvement. The instability that is common among school district superintendents and other leadership is highly disruptive to students’ education.

As we look at this opportunity to reset public education following the pandemic, any strategies that states and other jurisdictions implement for improving education ought to include an examination and development of models of governance that address that goal. Despite numerous changes and innovations in education over the last century, the model of school governance has not changed. How do we preserve local governance while increasing the stability that has proven elusive given the political nature of school governance in our system of elected school boards?”

Vanessa Steinkamp
Texas Educator; Parent

“As an educator, my biggest concern for the upcoming year deals with the exacerbation of structural inequities caused by disparate COVID-19 restrictions in schools. The baseline will be harder to navigate as some students learned remotely, some learned through homeschooling, some learned in hybrid models, and some learned in person. It creates another set of variables for teachers to remedy, and I worry about the psychological effects of students’ learning taking a back seat to disease abatement. I want learning to be fun, engaging, and multifaceted. The pandemic really stifled creativity and student engagement. 

As a parent, my primary concern will be pivoting back to a student-centered classroom focused on skill-based engagement versus teacher-driven content. With 3-foot masking rules, collaboration and interpersonal skills were all but forgotten. Lastly, I want to see less technology (no more Zooms or computer scoring) and more student-to-student interaction.”

Christian Taylor
Two-Time Olympic Gold Medalist; Four-Time World Champion in the Triple Jump; Classroom Champions Mentor

“I would encourage educators to push the importance of students having greater awareness of current affairs. There is a lot going on at the moment and many opinions flying around but very few facts to highlight and move situations forward. I believe students and teachers should be able to discuss current affairs, voice findings, and, for certain ages, propose solutions. This could help students process the things they are taking in around them but also give educators an idea of how these issues are affecting the student body. Some issues may be distant and the student may not have any connection to it, while others reflect real-time situations they are faced with in their lives/communities.”

Stay tuned for more in our “Magic Wand” series and join the conversation on Twitter @bellwethered.

(Editorial note: Some organizations listed in this series may include past or present clients or funders of Bellwether.)

Civics Education Isn’t About Content or Activism — It’s Both.

Today is Constitution Day and Citizenship Day, observed each year to commemorate the signing of the Constitution on September 17, 1787 and “recognize all who, by coming of age or by naturalization, have become citizens,” according to the Library of Congress. It makes for a good occasion to reflect on the state of civics education in America, a topic that has received renewed focus since the 2016 presidential election.

One question that is often debated in this conversation is whether civics education should focus on teaching content and critical thinking skills, or encouraging civic engagement and activism. This presents a false choice, as schools should be responsible for ensuring that students are both adequately informed and sufficiently engaged — not one or the other.

One side of this debate contends that civics education should first and foremost provide students with a basic understanding of how the American political system works and teach them how to think about political issues. Under this approach, students should develop a well-informed understanding of all sides of an issue, including the underlying facts and proposed solutions, only venturing into political activism once they have mastered the necessary knowledge and skills.

This approach is well intended: it is important to cultivate a citizenry capable of robust debate that honestly grapples with the benefits and tradeoffs associated with each issue. And improvement is certainly needed, based on students’ poor performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) civics assessment, which measures “the civics knowledge, skills, and dispositions that are critical to the responsibilities of citizenship in America’s constitutional democracy.” According to the most recent civics assessment, last administered in 2014, only 23 percent of eighth grade students scored at or above the proficient level. In 2010, when NAEP last tested high school seniors in civics, only 24 percent scored at or above the proficient level.

However, neither of these results has changed significantly since 1998, and it’s not as if older voters — who vote at much higher rates than younger voters — are necessarily bastions of civic knowledge. For example, according to the most recent results from the Annenberg Public Policy Center’s annual civics survey, released last week, fewer than one third of Americans can correctly name all three branches of government, and many also lack important knowledge about how each branch functions.

Source: Annenberg Public Policy Center

Additionally, civic engagement, particularly voting, is not just about making a well-reasoned choice between two or more options. It’s also a way of demonstrating political power. When young people aren’t engaged, they are leaving their figurative voice out of the political conversation, meaning the issues they care about may receive less attention, and policies that affect young people may be enacted without their input. Our education system should have a strong interest in empowering young people and starting them on a path of self-advocacy.

Source: United States Elections Project

While the goal of civics education should be to both adequately inform students and get them engaged in the political process, it’s clear that we aren’t doing a good enough job on either front. This isn’t surprising when you consider how little time is spent on civics education. Based on a recent analysis from the Center for American Progress, 40 states require coursework in U.S. government or civics. While nine states require one year of such coursework, 31 only require a half-year, and 10 states have no requirement at all.

If we want to ensure that the next generation of citizens is sufficiently prepared for civic life, we need to commit the necessary time and resources — certainly more than one semester. We should view this Constitution Day and Citizenship Day as an opportunity to rededicate ourselves to the civic mission of schools.

Can You Name the Branches of Government? Most Americans Can’t.

Today is Constitution Day, a holiday commemorating the formation and signing of the U.S. Constitution on September 17, 1787 — 230 years ago. As “a nation of immigrants,” America’s national identity is largely tied to our founding documents, endowing the Constitution with a unique importance in American culture. However, many Americans know little about this document that we are supposed to support and defend.

Last week, the Annenberg Public Policy Center (APPC) of the University of Pennsylvania released its Constitution Day Civics Survey, with dismal results. Only one in four respondents were able to name all three branches of government, a 12-point decline since 2011. Shockingly, 33 percent could not name a single branch.

The survey also asked respondents to identify which rights are guaranteed by the First Amendment. While nearly half (48 percent) were able to name “freedom of speech,” only 15 percent could name “freedom of religion.” Even fewer respondents identified the other rights (freedom of the press, right to petition, and right of assembly). Thirty-seven percent couldn’t name any.

Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of APPC, expressed her concern: “Protecting the rights guaranteed by the Constitution presupposes that we know what they are. The fact that many don’t is worrisome.”

Perhaps, in prior years, this warning may have seemed overblown. But in the Trump era, amid a seemingly constant slew of anti-democratic rhetoric, it feels right on the nose. For example, when asked whether those who are in the country illegally have any rights under the Constitution, 53 percent of APPC’s respondents disagreed. In this context of widespread ignorance and misinformation, the United States has seen an uptick in hate crimes associated with the rise of President Trump, beginning in 2015, persisting into 2016 and 2017, and culminating in the violence of the “Unite the Right” rally of white nationalists in Charlottesville last month.

Luckily, some states are taking action to bolster the civic knowledge of their students. For example, over the past three years, 17 states have adopted a “citizenship test” requirement for high school students. In eight of those states, students must receive a passing score on the test to receive a high school diploma. The questions are drawn from the the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) naturalization civics test, which immigrants must pass to become legal U.S. citizens.

This is a good first step, but it is far from sufficient. The test is not designed to be a high school civic literacy exam. It sets a low bar, with basic multiple-choice questions that ask test-takers to identify one branch of the government, or know how many amendments have been made to the Constitution. The simplicity is reflected in the initial test results, with very high passage rates and few students failing to pass the test after repeated attempts.

However, such a test is only one tool available to policymakers. They can design and administer higher quality civics assessments; implement robust standards and curricula for civics instruction; and provide real-world, project-based opportunities for students to learn about government and civic engagement. For example, New Hampshire passed legislation in 2016 requiring a civics test. But, rather than simply implementing a citizenship test for high school students, the legislation allows for the creation of locally developed assessments that can include a broader range of questions. Additionally, the state created a recognition for students who pass the required test by authorizing school districts to issue civic competency certificates.

New Hampshire Senator Lou D’Allesandro, a former civics teacher who sponsored some of the state’s legislation, summarized the issue well: “We always complain, ‘people don’t know anything about the system, they don’t get involved, they don’t vote.’ Well, they don’t vote because they don’t understand the importance of voting and how meaningful it is to participate in the process.”

If America wants to protect our constitutional rights and democratic ideals, we must ensure that our next generation of citizens are knowledgeable and engaged. That starts in the classroom.