Professional Learning

Common Core in Action: Reviving the Civic Mission of Schools

November 13, 2013
Photo credit: townofchapelhill via flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

We (meaning all of us -- educators, parents, businesspeople, politicians and others) often default to an economic argument in discussions of public education, no matter the particular initiative at hand. The economic argument resonates with the public, which understands the importance of education in getting a good job and providing for one's family.

Often ignored is the importance of the civic mission of schools -- schools' role in preparing students to be active and engaged citizens in their communities and the world. Our country's founders viewed education as a cornerstone to our democracy and designed our government assuming an educated citizenry. Considering the current state of our democracy (with partisan politics resulting in policy gridlock), it is concerning that the civic mission of public schools is so neglected, particularly given the lack of civic knowledge of our youth (evidenced by their poor performance on the 2010 NAEP in Civics) -- and low civic engagement (for example, just 41.2 percent of youth -- voters age 18-24 -- turned out for the 2012 presidential election).

But the Common Core could change that. While the standards focus on English Language Arts and mathematics, a recent briefing sponsored by the Albert Shanker Institute and the American Federation of Teachers highlighted how the Common Core could reinvigorate the civic mission of schools.

The Civic Promise of the Common Core

In addition to providing a more equitable and improved educational experience, which will (as panelist Meira Levinson pointed out) serve the civic mission of schools in and of itself, there are specifics in the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) that promote this agenda. Panelist Ross Weiner noted that the only content the standards prescribe is that all students read three foundational documents of American democracy -- the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution of the United States and Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address -- by the time they graduate high school.

Perhaps more importantly, while the CCSS explicitly articulate little content, they describe the skills and abilities that we want students to demonstrate -- many of which are just as relevant to civic participation as they are to college and career readiness (for example, the comprehension and use of complex texts, the capacity to analyze a problem, statistical literacy and purposeful oral and written communication). Want specifics? Consider a few of the speaking and listening, reading and writing anchor standards:

  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.SL.1: Prepare for and participate effectively in a range of conversations and collaborations with diverse partners, building on others' ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.SL.3: Evaluate a speaker's point of view, reasoning, and use of evidence and rhetoric
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R.8: Delineate and evaluate the argument and specific claims in a text, including the validity of the reasoning as well as the relevance and sufficiency of the evidence
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.W.1: Write arguments to support claims in an analysis of substantive topics or texts using valid reasoning and relevant and sufficient evidence

If students demonstrate competencies in these areas, they will likely succeed in a career or higher education environment, and they can transfer these skills to vote knowledgeably on candidates and ballot initiatives, be a good juror, effectively communicate concerns to elected leaders and mediate conflicts that arise in the community or workplace.

There are also more specific standards that point to student knowledge of our nation's founding, important in improving the civic learning of students. For example:

  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.9-10.9: Analyze seminal U.S. documents of historical and literary significance (e.g., Washington's Farewell Address, the Gettysburg Address, Roosevelt's Four Freedoms speech, King's "Letter from Birmingham Jail"), including how they address related themes and concepts

Even in math, as Weiner pointed out, the focus on quantitative literacy is important to civic participation. As evidenced by recent politics around the federal budget, those in Washington, DC, are stuck in debates that involve math that is not well understood even by those who need to vote on policies based on it.

Of course, as panelists made clear and I must reiterate, the Common Core does not include standards for social studies or science. In addition, the ELA and math standards mainly describe important skills. They need to be filled in with content, which can be done to support the civic mission of schools if so desired.

Taking Action

As Weiner noted, the civic promise of the Common Core is not self-executing -- "If we don't decide that this is going to be a priority in Common Core implementation, it won't happen."

To advance the agenda, he suggested practical actions for education decision makers, including:

  • Select curriculum that includes topics of civic relevance. This should happen across the disciplines -- for example, how do we use science to solve public policy problems?
  • Train teachers to facilitate discussion of policy issues and contentious topics. This type of instruction hasn't been expected of teachers in the past, and they may not have much exposure to it. In addition, they often shy away from it for fear of community pushback, so parents and other community members should be made aware of the importance of such discussions in schools as well
  • Ensure assessments cover issues of civic relevance. There could be questions across a variety of topics that engage students in problem solving and applying what they know in a civically relevant context
  • Determine what quality looks like in this arena. What does it look like when a school or teacher is doing a good job teaching students what is expected of them as citizens? We must incorporate this idea into discussion of how to improve practice
  • Define the value proposition for students. How do we let students know they are doing well or improving in this area? Ideas include digital badges and development of a diploma with distinction in civics or civic engagement

Common Core advocates also need to talk about this aspect of the initiative as central to its purpose and success. Not only will such rhetoric keep it in the forefront as implementation progresses, it has the potential to build support for the CCSS among those who wonder if ELA and math standards are all we want out of our children's education.


Library of Congress Teacher Resources, which includes classroom materials and professional development to help teachers effectively use primary sources from its vast digital collections. These resources are aligned to Common Core standards, state standards and the standards of national organizations. For example, there are 296 classroom materials aligned to CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.9-10.9 (referenced above), including 55 lesson plans.

Share My Lesson, a free platform where educators come together to create and share teaching resources. It has a significant resource bank for Common Core State Standards, covering all aspects of the CCSS, searchable by standard.

Project Citizen, a curricular program at the middle school through adult levels promoting competent and responsible participation with government. It requires students find a problem in their community, research alternatives and work to solve it either through a project or lobbying for policy change. (Unfortunately, the curriculum, which has been aligned to the Common Core, is not free.)

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