A False Choice: Informed Action is Vital to Educating for Democracy

by Shawn P. Healy, PhD, Democracy Program Director

Last week, Fordham Institute Distinguished Senior Fellow Chester E. Finn, Jr. penned a sharp critique of the National Council for the Social Studies’ (NCSS) opposition to states requiring students to pass the Citizenship Test as a condition of high school graduation. His piece went on to assail the teaching of civics and social studies more generally, and warrants a response from this lifelong civic educator and advocate.

I have already taken a public stance against the required Citizenship Test in an article published by Congressional Quarterly, but I agree with Finn in that “…the world (and nation) in which we live has greater need than ever before for its young adults to possess a solid grounding in the country’s history, values, and civic institutions.”

And we also find common ground in our support for direct instruction on the basics like the three branches of government and the five freedoms of the First Amendment. However, there is little empirical evidence that a content-centered curriculum alone results in higher test scores on assessments like the National Assessment of Educational Progress in Civics (NAEP) designed to measure students’ civic knowledge and skills.

In my analysis of the last three iterations of NAEP Civics at the 12th grade level, I found no evidence of any content variable (teaching the U.S. Constitution, for example) correlating with higher test scores. Most actually demonstrated a slightly negative correlation. By comparison, discussing current events, classroom debates, and simulations of democratic processes resulted in stronger student performance, current events dramatically so. These proven civic learning practices bring content knowledge to life.

The 1998 NAEP Civics Assessment asked students a question about whether or not they volunteered in their community, and if so, whether it took place on their own and through school. The difference on the latter variable was statistically insignificant, an important finding in its own right, but the difference in performance by students who volunteered and those who didn’t was dramatic (17-18 points; see graph below).


In illustrating the benefits of these student-centered civic learning practices I am not discounting the importance of disciplinary knowledge. Finn forces us to make a false choice in pitting one against the other. Knowledge often inspires civic engagement, and while engaging, we frequently seek further information to determine our next action steps.

Finn calls out “action civics,” labeling it “…a little nebulous but seems to boil down to advocacy and protests.” This charge is at best uninformed as the civic learning community has coalesced around the https://www.socialstudies.org/c3a framework where students are empowered to select issues deeply personal to them, draw upon disciplinary knowledge (the facts Finn privileges) to define the problem, and ultimately to explore public policy options that address both root causes and current symptoms.

Ultimately, there is a take action component, most often focused on an “inside strategy” like writing a letter to an elected official or creating a public service announcement intended to influence public opinion. This is the counterpart to the “outside strategies” that Finn derides, both of them critical to informed, effective engagement in our democracy.

Finally, Finn takes a shot at student voice in school governance and broader school climate reform efforts. He seemingly fails to appreciate that most students still attend public schools, governmental institutions staffed by public employees. Their governance, whether authoritarian or democratic (preferably the latter), is a daily civics lesson in its own right. What better place than school for students to learn the rights and responsibilities of their roles as citizens in our democracy?

I align with Finn in pursuing the historic civic mission of our schools and integrating direct instruction into a K-12 civics curriculum. We part ways in my belief that it must be paired with more student-centered practices like discussion, service-learning, and simulations, and also that student voice is vital to the governance of democratic institutions like public schools.

Reagan Institute Summit on Education Revisits A Nation at Risk

by Shawn P. Healy, PhD, Democracy Program Director

Thirty-five years ago this April, the National Commission on Excellence in Education published A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Education Reform. It was therefore fitting that the Reagan Institute convened a two-day summit in Washington, D.C., last week for a retrospective look at the report and discussion of the current and future challenges facing our P-20 educational system.

The McCormick Foundation was proud to be among the sponsors as the Reagan Foundation and D.C.-based Institute have long been national partners in advocating for stronger school-based civic learning. While A Nation at Risk is often blamed for the back-to-the-basics movement that led to a singular focus on math, reading, and science to the detriment of social studies and other subjects core to a well-rounded education, the report itself tied the challenges of the 1980’s with threats to democracy:

The educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people.

As various luminaries of Republican and Democratic administrations took the stage over the course of the summit, low test scores, inequitable access, and poor preparation for college and career dominated the conversations. Yet civic learning surfaced in the closing comments of a few, such as former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in the opening plenary.


Senator Lamar Alexander, former Education Secretary and current Chair of the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, went further.


I had the honor of co-facilitating a breakout session dedicated to civic learning that attracted a standing-room-only crowd, and a will provide a full recap in a separate post. We were graced by Former Secretary of Education John King’s participation, and he drew on his experiences as a social studies teacher here and in the closing plenary of the summit to advocate for high-quality civic learning.


The Reagan Foundation hosts a successful annual conference on national defense, and plans to convene this parallel summit on education policy in the years ahead. This inaugural undertaking with significant star power was an unqualified success as bi-partisan conversations across difference on issues of utmost importance are all too rare.

At this time of hyper-polarization, when our commitments to democracy and its institutions are face generational tests, the words of A Nation at Risk reverberate in timeless form:

A high level of shared education is essential to a free, democratic society and to the fostering of a common culture, especially in a country that prides itself on pluralism and individual freedom.

Guest Blog: The Proven Practice of Simulations

by Christine Jaegle, Civics Mentor for DuPage County

Christine Jaegle has taught social studies at Lisle Senior High School for a total of seven years, returning this past school year after taking time off to raise her children.

Christine helped implement the Legislative Semester there, a Government curriculum where seniors participate in a semester long congressional simulation. She has also helped design a new Civics course directed at sophomores with many of the same principles. In her comments below, Christine shares how the use of the proven practice of simulations of democratic processes benefits her diverse student body.
Utilizing simulations in the classroom is something I have always been extremely passionate about. At Lisle High School our American Government class for seniors is taught as a semester-long legislative simulation where students work to identify themselves on the political spectrum, elect leadership, and create legislation. The semester culminates at Committee Hearings held in the library and a Full Session held in our auditorium where they debate and vote on the fate of their ideas. For me, the biggest satisfaction I get out of utilizing this structure is to see students succeed who may have struggled in a traditional government course.

We have students with IEPs, 504 plans, ELL services, and anxiety or other emotional disorders stand up in front of their peers and passionately advocate for their bills by delivering eloquent speeches in support of their position. Additionally, many of these students step out of their comfort zone and volunteer to take on a leadership role. This enthusiasm stems from the choice and ownership that students are given over their topics. Students develop an authentic understanding of the process of government far better by participating in the simulation than they do in a traditional format.

I have adapted these principles in my sophomore Civics class when discussing current and controversial issues by implementing Socratic Seminars frequently this year. Providing this structure for discussions allows students to take ownership and discuss topics in a safe and structured environment. The norms of a Socratic Seminar provide a setting where students practice, utilize and become quite proficient at skills needed to have productive real world conversations on sensitive issues.

Do you use the proven practice of simulations in the classroom? Please comment below and share your expertise. Together, we can prepare students for college, career and civic life.

Minnesota Nice No More: Legislation to Neuter Controversy in the Classroom May Exasperate Political Polarization

by Shawn P. Healy, PhD, Democracy Program Director

We have written at length about the power and prevalence of controversial issues discussions in civics classrooms. An “academic balance” bill making its way through the Minnesota Senate challenges these presuppositions.


Senate Bill 2487 (SB-2487) would require public and charter schools to pass an “academic balance” policy prohibiting school employees from compelling students to “express specified social or political viewpoints” as part of an academic course or extracurricular activity.

Fair enough, but there’s more.

In declaring, “Public education courses are not for the purpose of political, ideological, religious, or antireligious indoctrination,” the legislation seemingly implies that this is currently common practice. In my experience, teachers often shy from politics, exclusively emphasizing government institutions, and thus exhibiting a bias towards the status quo. SB 2487 would double down on this tendency.

According to the bill, students must also have “access to a broad range of serious opinions pertaining to the subjects of study.” This, too, is part of a responsible approach to teaching with controversy, but nonetheless infringes on teacher autonomy and arguably threatens academic freedom.

Furthermore, SB-2487 would “require caution from classroom teachers when expressing personal views in the classroom and prohibit the introduction of controversial matters without a relationship to the subject taught.”

One, this assumes that teachers fail to exercise “caution” already (see my previous point). And two, it conflicts with empirical findings about teacher disclosure. The decision of whether or not to disclose personal political views with students is important pedagogically. Those that choose disclosure must make it clear to students that they are free to disagree, the maintenance of an open classroom environment critical in either case.

Bill sponsor Senator Carla Nelson (R-Rochester) fears that the political polarization gripping our society will envelop our schools, too. Assuming she’s open to advice from a Midwestern neighbor, I would suggest that controversy in the classroom be protected by state statute as it is in Illinois, not circumscribed as proposed in Minnesota.

By allowing students to grapple with political issues in a controlled environment led by trained professionals, they will come to appreciate the ideological diversity of their peers and learn how to deliberate across difference. The long-term solution to the forces of political polarization lies with leaning into their root cause: we were taught to avoid political conversations and flock to like-minded media and fellow partisans. Ideological amplification can be neutered by educators empowered to responsibly inject the issues of the day into classroom conversations.