Task force makes recommendations to bolster civic education in Indiana

The Indiana Bar Foundation Civic Education Task Force released a series of recommendations Wednesday for improving Hoosier students’ understanding of American democracy. The proposals  include revising academic standards, providing more professional development for teachers and strengthening ties to the community.

Chaired by Indiana Lt. Gov. Suzanne Crouch, the task force spent much of 2020 studying civics curriculum and programs in Indiana as well as other states. Also, the task force surveyed Indiana teachers and school administrators to learn what is happening in their classrooms.

The final 56-page report from the task force includes recommendations divided into two phases to be implemented over the next several years. Some members of the task force and experts in civic education presented the report and its recommendations during a virtual press conference this morning.

“President (Abraham) Lincoln once said the philosophy of the schoolhouse in one generation will be the philosophy of the government in the next,” Crouch said. “The effort of the Civic Education Task Force furthers this belief. Indiana is always seeking ways to innovate and improve our civic health, showing that the Hoosier state desires to be at the forefront of initiatives to change for the better.”

The 20-member task force was comprised of Indiana legislators, teachers, business leaders and experts in civic education. Through its four meetings this year, the group heard from Indiana and national educators who gave presentations on how civics is taught and how students’ knowledge of the material can be assessed.

Also, the task force conducted a survey of Indiana teachers and school administrators from May 18 to June 19, 2020. The survey indicated the best practices for teaching civic education are not being used in Hoosier classrooms and teachers feel they do not have the proper resources, training or time to teach civics properly.

Phase one, proposed to be implemented from 2021 to 2023, includes the creation of a democracy certified school program modeled after Indiana’s STEM certification program. In addition, the initial phase calls for more professional development opportunities for teachers and strengthening the interaction between communities and their schools.

Phase two, to be rolled out from 2024 to 2026, would craft revised academic standards for civic education and increase civics course requirements. The second phase would also institute assessments to measure students’ understanding of the civics curriculum and to help schools make civic education a priority. Moreover, students in the fifth and eighth grades as well as graduating seniors would be required to complete a civics project.

The full report will be available online at www.inbf.org.

Participants in the press conference acknowledged teachers in Indiana have limited time and resources but they did not believe a renewed focus on civics had to be another burden in the classroom.

Brown County School Corp. Superintendent Laura Hammack said civic education should be imbedded into the current curriculum. Rather than viewing it as an addition to what educators already have to teach their students, civics can be incorporated into the material from other subjects.

“We’ve really sort of fallen away from civic education as a priority when we took a profound focus on language arts and mathematics,” Hammack said. “… We think that there is a way to align all of the work and have civic education be a fundamental part of the delivery of that language arts instruction and just being more intentional with our time and ensuring that civic education is a part of the school day.”

Brown County demonstrates that schools do not have to be wealthy or in metropolitan areas to be successful at teaching civic education. Nestled in the hills of Indiana, Brown County has 15,000 residents, many of whom struggle against poverty, but since starting a We the People program, the eighth-grade students have won six state championships, two national runner-up titles and two national championships.

Still funding is a problem for civic education programs across the country. Shawn Healy, program director of the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, pointed out the disparity in support with the federal government spending about 5 cents per student on civic education compared to the roughly $50 spent per student on science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) curriculum.

Bringing a better understanding of civics and getting citizens more engaged in their communities is important for democratic governance, Healy said. He noted not only is the country polarized but many have a deep distrust in government institutions, which makes it difficult not only to address today’s issues but to overcome the bigger generational challenges.

“I think Indiana came to the same place that may of us did, which is the long-term solution to these problems is actually to empower our citizens to resolve them,” Healy said. “And the best way to do that is to strengthen the way we do civic education in schools.”

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