Metro, Boston

Committee on Education Holds Hearing to Discuss Lack of Civic Learning in Boston Public Schools

A public hearing to discuss the need for additional civics education in Boston public high schools was held on Monday by the Boston City Council’s Committee on Education. This was the first hearing filed by Councilor Althea Garrison, who was sworn in this past January, and her proposal for increasing civics education has garnered widespread support from other city councilors and constituents alike.

In her opening statement, by way of explaining why there is a need for changes at an institutional level with regard to civics education, Garrison lamented the ways in which the United States has done little to promote education about government and citizenship.

“While federal education policy has focused on improving academic achievement in reading and math, this has come at the expense of the broader curriculum,” she said. “Most states and local school districts have dedicated insufficient class time to understand the basic function of government at the expense of other courses.”

Garrison went on to address the law enacted by Governor Charlie Baker’s administration that introduced voluntary civics projects into the educational curriculum for middle and high school students, saying that it is a positive step forward, but she thinks the City of Boston can do better. There is still a need for direct instruction about civics, Garrison said.

Currently, the main provision for civics education in place in Boston high schools is three years of mandatory history and social studies for each student, which dedicates modest attention to government and citizenship. Natacha Scott, director of history and social studies for Boston Public Schools, elaborated on this and provided a sweeping overview of the current state of civics education in Boston.

Scott explained that the next step will be continuing to collaborate with other agencies and organizations to bolster the curriculum. By 2022, after a series of efforts and extensive conversations with teachers, Scott aims to “implement district-wide structures for formative and summative history and social studies assessment.”  

Civics education has already significantly affected how students interact with the city of Boston. John Reiff, who works as director of Civic Learning and Civic Engagement for the Massachusetts Department of Higher Education, cited the example of a teacher and several students at Lowell High School developing an action civics project, where the students organized a gun buyback program in Lowell.

This program, he continued, allowed students to learn how to work with the systems in place in the larger community. Ultimately, these students successfully used grocery store credits to buy back 38 guns, including five assault rifles. Successes like this one emerged as a common factor for the support of introducing a bill for more civics education in schools.

Those present at the hearing—including local teachers and other constituents who offered testimony—voiced unanimous support for introducing more civics education. There was a common sentiment that civic learning allows students to understand the ways in which the government affects their lives and communities while also showing students the avenues open to them to make a difference in the decisions that the government makes.

In this atmosphere of unbridled support, there was little discussion of some of the challenges of incorporating additional civics education into the curriculum. Patrick McQuillan—an associate professor in the Lynch School of Education and Human Development at Boston College whose expertise includes curriculum, history education, and social context of education—spoke about his hesitations concerning the practical implementation of additional civics education in an interview with The Heights.

“I don’t want to be too pessimistic about this, and I deeply respect the teachers in the schools, but some people will embrace this and some people will not be very happy with this,” he said. “It’s just so hard to make change in a large public system… You’ve got to get teachers in line to embrace these practices, and they’ve got to have time in their classes to enact these practices, and you have to wonder about what other commitments they might already have.”

Despite the difficulties of incorporating additional civics education into Boston schools, McQuillan declared his overwhelming support for the issue.

“If there’s anything that we need, we need some citizenship education in the United States in the 21st century,” he said. “We need it badly.”

Photo Courtesy of Daniel Schwen / Wikimedia Commons

March 24, 2019