Civic education in schools was the topic of the August 3, 2021, League of Women Voters Topeka-Shawnee County Tuesday Topics presentation by Ann Mah, a former legislator who currently serves on the Kansas State Board of Education representing District 4. We’ve included the highlights of her presentation below. The library is a partner with the League of Women Voters in sharing nonpartisan civic information.
Mah provided an overview of Kansas State Board of Education (KSBE) actions to meet the needs of today’s students.
Civic Advisory Network
In 2015 the KSBE and Kansas State Department of Education (KSDE) asked, “What does a successful 24 year-old look like and what role does K-12 education play in that?” The answers that came from focus groups provided the Kansas Vision for Success:
- academic preparation,
- cognitive preparation,
- technical skills,
- employability skills
- and civic engagement.
As a result, measurements for accreditation were changed. KSDE established the Civic Advocacy Network (CAN) to recognize schools that actively involve students in civic engagement opportunities and to collect exemplary civic engagement practices to share with all Kansas schools. The ultimate goal of CAN is to promote civic engagement as part of all preK-12 students’ experiences.
We now include civic engagement in accreditation (See Fact Sheet, Kansas State Department of Education.)
Defining Civic Engagement
Individuals sharing their skills and knowledge through actions intended to improve communities, states, nations, the world and themselves are involved in civic engagement. The following are the key elements of civic engagement in Kansas schools:
- Civic skills are the abilities necessary to participate as informed, thoughtful and engaged citizens in a democratic republic. They are necessary for critical thinking and collective action. Civic skills include speaking, listening, collaboration, community organizing, public advocacy, and the ability to gather and process information.
- Civic knowledge begins with a fundamental understanding of the structure of government, and the processes by which laws and policy are made. It also requires an understanding of the history that shapes the present, and the geography and economics that impact policy options.
- Civic actions include voting, volunteering, participating, collaborating, compromising, speaking, and any number of activities designed to assist others, sway opinions or impact policy.
- Civic intent are personal commitments to ideals important in a democracy that include concern for others’ rights and welfare, freedom, fairness, reasonable levels of trust and a sense of public duty.
Examples of Civic Education
Seaman High School won a 2019 Civic Advocacy Network Award. Criteria for the award includes examples of how students are given instruction in government and democracy, incorporating discussion of issues, designing and implementing programs with service opportunities, offering extracurricular activities that promote community involvement, and encouraging student participation in school government and the democratic process.
Ann Mah invited the following members of the district’s leadership team to present the many ways the district is making civic engagement a priority:
- Danira Fernandez-Flores (Director of Secondary Education)
- Becky Kramer (Director of Elementary Education)
- Kelli Finnegan (Principal, North Fairview Elementary School)
- Susan Sittenauer (Social Studies Teacher)
- Olivia Olivera (Student)
Project-based learning occurs at every grade level and follows the Seaman District’s curriculum focus for the particular grade. For instance, second grade students focus on neighborhoods.
At the secondary level, students wanted to change the name of a highway to honor a man who had lived in the area and fought in the Civil War. Students researched, wrote a bill, presented the bill to the legislature, and were successful! The highway name was changed.
Juniors in high school produce a National History Day project and are required to participate in two extra-curricular activities. Students may participate in Boys and Girls State, Crime Stoppers or Youth Court.
Olivia Olivera, a senior at Seaman High School, discussed her civic engagement work. She is a member of the Equity Action Network that works for a more inclusive, caring environment for students. Olivera also participates in Model UN and is on the Seaman Name Change Committee.
Current Issues in Civic Education
Mah discussed the Kansas legislature’s desire for a mandated civics test that would include 60 random questions taken from the citizenship test. The KSBE opposed the bill believing there are better ways to learn history than rote memory. The Board also said the legislature overstepped its bounds into areas that are KSBE’s responsibility. Governor Kelly vetoed the bill and the legislature didn’t proceed further.
Mah also addressed the issue of Critical Race Theory (CRT), which has recently dominated media headlines. According to a statement released by the Kansas State Board of Education, “Critical race theory is an advanced and complex concept with roots extending to the 1970s and the examination of how laws and systems promote inequality.” The statement also affirms “Critical race theory is not a part of Kansas’ academic standards and has never been a part of Kansas’ academic standards. We encourage everyone to review these standards.” Mah said KSBE sets the standards and districts design their curriculum.
Attendees’ questions centered on Youth Court and how people can support civic engagement in our schools.