Testing the Limits of Students as Policy Advocates

by Shawn Healy, PhD, Civic Learning Scholar

We’ve made the case previously for actively engaging students in the public policy process. However, in reviewing a manuscript this week proposing to create a curriculum to facilitate this for both high school and college students, Lead Teacher Mentor Mary Ellen Daneels and I were struck by a statement that read, “Political involvement or action must never be required as part of an academic course.”

Is the author correct in making this pedagogical assertion? The answer is complicated and we invite your own views.

Advocacy is one form of service-learning (direct and indirect service are the others), a practice required by the new Illinois civics course requirement and complimentary to emerging state social studies standards that ask students to communicate conclusions and take informed action across grades and disciplines.

The standards, and best practice more generally, invite students to develop their own questions and inquiries. This removes the teacher from steering students towards a particular issue or political position.

What we teach and how we teach is an important consideration as students draw upon disciplinary knowledge to answer these questions, ideally consulting a rich menu of sources that provide a variety of political perspectives.

As we move towards communicating conclusions and taking informed action, students may be asked to write letters to an elected or appointed government official or to prepare testimony for a public meeting. It is here that the question of requiring engagement comes into question.

It seems perfectly reasonable to leave discretion with students as to whether to mail the said letter or provide testimony in person. We may encourage them to follow through, but must also consider potential discomfort and even issues of citizenship status in the current environment.

On Tuesday, we wrote about the tumultuous town hall meetings taking place across the country, and mentioned that several Illinois teachers, schools, and districts require students to attend public meetings as part of a civics or government course. Is it acceptable to compel attendance so long as students silently document the proceedings and later reflect upon the experience in class?

We are also aware of other districts that actually prohibit students from contacting school board members, providing public comment, or even attending meetings altogether. Not only does this other extreme strike us as undemocratic, but it denies students exposure to local democracy at its best. After all, Illinois has more school districts and boards than any other state.

Please share your thoughts on the limits of students as policy advocates. We’d love to summarize them in a future post.

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