ASU, diverse team of collaborators release 'Roadmap to Educating for American Democracy'

After one of the most tumultuous years – politically, socially and economically – in recent history, many Americans are finding themselves in a state of disenchantment. “How did we get here?” is a question asked often, and “How can we fix this?” even more.

According to some of the nation’s most esteemed educators, the answer to the latter question starts in the classroom.

On March 2, Arizona State University, along with a diverse team of collaborators from iCivics, Harvard and Tufts University, released the Roadmap to Educating for American Democracy, a framework that reflects the work of more than 300 scholars, educators and practitioners with the goal to build excellence in civic and history education for all of America’s K–12 students.

Funded by a $1.1 million grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the U.S. Department of Education, it includes comprehensive guidance to states and local school districts for the creation of the standards, curricula and instructional materials necessary for excellence in civic learning for 21st-century students.

“America, we think, is in this bad place in part because the American education system, not only in schools, but in higher education, has neglected the teaching of civics and of American history,” said Paul Carrese, director of ASU’s School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership and one of the project leads.

Carrese attributed that neglect to a lack of sufficient investment, in terms of funding, time and priority, citing the fact that the U.S. spends approximately $50 dollars per student per year of federal money on investments in STEM fields while spending approximately 5 cents per student per year on civics and history education.

“Another reason we are not set up for excellence in history and civics teaching in schools … is that scholars and teachers and others have not done the hard work of deliberating with each other to reach a consensus about what and how we should teach.

"We think we've done that hard, deliberative work,” Carrese said of his fellow collaborators.

The work he referred to was conducted over 18 months, with the goal of creating a framework that would support the civic development of the country’s diverse student population into prepared, informed and engaged citizens.

Danielle Allen, James Bryant Conant University Professor and director of the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard, said the road map was designed with the entire country in mind, calling the group of scholars who contributed “unprecedented in its scale” in terms of its demographic ideological diversity.

“The road map presents a new vision for history and civics that shifts from breadth to depth,” Allen said. “We focus on inquiry, asking questions and doing sustained investigation, drawing on evidence to answer those questions. … The work is not a mandate or a curriculum. It is instead a series of themes with questions that have the job of inspiring students to want to become involved in our constitutional democracy and help sustain our republic.”

Along with those themes and questions are instructional strategies for every grade level, as well as a website of curated examples of resources and lessons that align with the instructional principles of the road map. In addition, the road map provides implementation recommendations targeted to local, state and federal officials, as well as to national civil society organizations.

“Rebuilding excellence in history and civic learning is a whole society endeavor and project,” Allen said.

Peter Levine, associate dean of academic affairs and Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University’s Jonathan Tisch College of Civic Life explained that the road map begins with a list of facts and pulls from them a set of important questions.

For example, Levine said, discussion of a historical event like the Boston Tea Party or Shays’ Rebellion would be guided by what the project team calls “driving questions,” such as: What was the experience of the British government? Of British colonies? Of Indigenous Americans? Of enslaved Americans and indentured Americans?

“So the road map is organized around themes … and for each of these themes, we pose thematic questions that come from history and from civics. And the two are integrated and complementary and they both need to be addressed,” Levine said. “So a history question would be, ‘Who are we, the people of the United States, and how has that nation's population changed over time?’ But a civic thematic question would be, ‘Why is constitutional democracy dependent on the idea of the people?’”

The seven themes of the road map are: civic participation, our changing landscapes, we the people, a new government and constitution, institutional and social transformation, a people in the world, and a people with contemporary debates and possibilities.

Another major element of the road map is a set of five design challenges that reflect its learning goals and inform instructional strategy: motivating agency and sustaining the republic, America’s plural yet shared story, simultaneously celebrating and critiquing compromise, civic honesty and reflective patriotism, and balancing the concrete and the abstract.

Now that the road map is published, the team’s next step is to continue curation of the project website with examples of instructional resources and working with state governments and civil society partners to create advocates for its implementation.

“This is a long-term project to rebuild the heart of excellence in history and civic learning,” Allen said. “… It is about marshaling the troops all over our country to pull in the same direction toward rebuilding a process and effort to educate for American democracy.”

Top photo courtesy of Pixabay

Emma Greguska
emma.greguska@asu.edu