Proposed National Civics Framework Shows Great Promise

Posted by on May 16, 2013

Our guest author today is Stephen Lazar, a founding teacher at Harvest Collegiate High School in New York City, where he teaches Social Studies. A National Board certified teacher, he blogs at Outside the Cave. Stephen is also one of the organizers of Insightful Social Studies, a grass roots campaign of teachers to reform the newly proposed New York State Social Studies standards.

A couple of months ago, I warned, “We cannot possibly continue to move solely in the direction of ‘college and career readiness’ in History & Social Studies education without ensuring that ‘civic’ readiness is valued equally.” While our struggle continues in New York State, the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) took an extremely promising first step towards assuaging my fears with the release of The College, Career, and Civic Life (C3) Framework for Social Studies State Standards. This document was intended for a targeted review by certain groups last month. Copies, however, are not difficult to find by searching.

Simply put, the proposed C3 Framework is brilliant. It is exactly what our nation needs to ensure civic life and participation is properly valued, and it is what the Social Studies teaching profession needs to ensure our discipline retains its unique and essential role within our education system. It is brilliant in its conception, its modesty and its usefulness as a document to inform policy and practice.

The C3 describes itself as a document that provides “states with voluntary guidance for upgrading existing social studies standards… [which] aims to support states in creating standards that prepare young people for effective and successful participation in college, careers, and civic life.” It is not another set of Common Core standards, but rather a framework to guide states as they seek to upgrade existing state Social Studies standards to align them with the Common Core. The work to create the document was led by Kathy Swan, a professor at the University of Kentucky, and involved representatives from state education agencies and from various social studies organizations, overseen by the CCSSO.

The primary brilliance of the the C3 is that it moves beyond the over-simplified debates of content vs. skills (the discourse in which the Core Knowledge Blog made a misguided attempt to engage with my previous piece for the Shanker Blog), and instead recognizes Civics as more than the sum of those two parts. Rather, it recognizes that Civics is about dispositions that lead to action. For students, this means that they will not only learn the story of history or explanations of economics and government. Nor does it mean, as many fear, that social studies courses will just become another site of reading and writing instruction, void of content or understanding, to improve students’ scores on Common Core-aligned exams. It means that as students’ develop skills, gain knowledge, and uncover understandings, that these gains will come from a position of inquiry, and will be applied, in hopefully meaningful ways, to the issues and audiences students’ face in their lives.

According to the Framework, to act with civic responsibility:

students need the intellectual power to recognize societal problems; ask good questions and develop robust investigations into them; consider possible solutions and consequences; separate evidence-based claims from parochial opinions; and communicate and act upon what they learn. And most importantly, they must possess the capability and commitment to repeat that process as long as is necessary.

The C3 framework begins with the act of questioning, and ends with the act of sharing knowledge and taking informed action. In between, it offers clear guidelines for disciplinary thinking and research. It is particularly strong in its definition of historical thinking and recognition of history as “interpretive.” The Framework describes these four stages as the “arc” of social studies. By repeating this arc of inquiry multiple times in a grade, year after year, it will create more than civic knowledge and capacities; it will create a civic disposition.

The C3 is also intelligent for what it is not: It’s not a list of content that students should learn. Those decisions are smartly left to the states, and I hope that states will leave those decisions to school communities. Any attempt to do otherwise would lead to a lowest common denominator approach, which, in the end, would not serve anyone.

Finally, the C3 Framework is very useful document. It clearly shows its own connections with the Common Core. It lucidly articulates expectations of performance for each part of each dimension at different levels. And it documents the research behind its work and recommendations. Kathy Swan and her team deserve high praise for this contribution to our field.

However, the framework is not perfect, which is not at all surprising, as it is just a draft. Its description of Civics and Political Institutions focuses too much on government, and would improve with additional emphasis on civil society and types of non-governmental civic institutions – e.g., churches, advocacy groups, non-profits, etc.

In addition, the draft’s expectations for Economic Decision Making would be stronger if it portrayed risks and rewards as dynamic rather than static considerations – that is, as factors that change over time. I hope the process of targeted review will strengthen the document in other small ways, without comprising its high quality and overall vision.

The C3 Framework represents a significant step forward for Social Studies teaching and our country’s civic life. Teachers and caring citizens should support its implementation.  I will be doing what I can to push New York to adopt it.

- Stephen Lazar


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