Taking the Action Out of Civics?

SnapsAmerican flagshotCivic education is increasingly a hot-button topic in a polarized nation. After introducing a project-based civics curriculum in which students take action to create change, a school leader faces pushback from teachers, as well as disagreement about the purpose of civic education from the social studies department. How should schools respond when civic education becomes a divisive issue in the community?


Case Description: The past decade has seen a renewed interest in civic education in the United States, with politicians, pundits, and educators on both sides of the political spectrum agreeing that schools need to devote more curriculum time to civics. However, there is sharp disagreement about what students should learn in their civics courses and how they should use their increased civic knowledge, skills, and dispositions.

Taking the Action out of Civics?” examines the debate over a form of project-based civics education called Action Civics, in which students research a topic of their choosing and then take action to create change. In this case study, a parent’s crusade to end the action civics project prompts a high school to examine the purpose of civic education, the rights of young people to influence their community, and the ways that polarized discourse influences schools. Should young people be recipients of civic knowledge rather than agents of change? How should input from the community influence school decisions about curriculum? In a polarized community, is it better to make waves or smooth tensions? 


Additional Resources:

  • We also have a reader's theater version of this case. We often use the reader's theater version for professional development sessions and other one-off events. This version is designed to be read aloud with different participants voicing the different characters. 
  • While this case is fictional, it features numerous footnotes referencing news articles, opinion pieces, and academic papers about action civics. Any one of the sources referenced in the paper provides an interesting and valuable read. 
  • For a peek into the action civics curriculum, and the controversy surrounding it, read this article from The Hechinger Report, “Teaching ‘action civics’ engages kids—and ignites controversy.”
  • Stanley Kurtz of the Ethics and Public Policy center has been a leading conservative critic of action civics. This article from The American Mind, “‘Action civics’ replaces citizenship with partisanship,” presents an overview of his arguments. 
  • Unfortunately, it’s hard to find youth voices in the national debate over high-quality civics curriculum. For a student perspective on the value of action civics, we recommend this opinion piece from CNN written by UCLA freshman Victor Shi, “Where the fight to build a better democracy starts.”
  • For a look at how school board meetings are “a nexus of America’s culture wars,” listen to this episode of NPR’s On Point.