O'Malley, Freel and Abbott: Keep informed, engaged during Civic Learning Week


Fran O’Malley is the director of the Delaware Center for Civics Education at the University of Delaware’s Joseph R. Biden Jr. School of Public Policy & Administration. Ed Freel is its Senior Fellow, and Scott Abbott is its assistant director.

Shortly after Benjamin Franklin emerged from the closed doors of the Constitutional Convention in 1787, Elizabeth Willing Powell of Philadelphia approached him and asked what kind of government the delegates had given us. “A republic,” Franklin replied, “if you can keep it.” In recent years, the polarization and divisiveness characterizing civic life, spread of misinformation, meddling in and denying of election results, and assault on the nation’s capital leave serious people worried that we are in risk of losing it.

This past week, our governor, John Carney, signed a resolution declaring March 11-15 Civic Learning Week in Delaware. Delaware will join states around the country in this initiative aimed at making civic learning a nationwide priority for a stronger democracy. With the 250th anniversary of our nation’s birth just two years away, this call for schools and all Americans to recommit to building a “more perfect union” is both timely and urgent.

Delawareans should feel proud and lucky being led by a governor, Supreme Court and General Assembly that have recently committed significant resources for civics and law-related education. Similarly, our Delaware Department of Education has been working with districts, schools and the social studies community to develop instructional resources that educators can use to advance student achievement and develop our youngest citizens, who all too frequently remain disengaged until later in life.

In the past two years, Gov. Carney has implemented new programs to recognize teachers and schools for excellence in civics education. At the same time, several organizations have banded together to form a Delaware Civics Education Coalition to coordinate efforts aimed at expanding and enhancing civics education. Organizations that form this coalition offer Delaware’s students amazing opportunities to become empowered and explore careers in public service. These programs include Project Citizen, the Delaware and national mock trial competitions, statewide student mock elections, the Youth in Government Program, Project Soapbox and Boys and Girls State.

Still, we suffer an opportunity gap whereby relatively few and better resourced students are able to take advantage of the programs. Why? Because insufficient time is allocated in school curricula for teachers to engage students in longer but immensely valuable projects and simulations. As a result, these great experiences are only available as extracurricular activities offered after school and on weekends, creating well-documented opportunity, achievement and empowerment gaps whereby traditionally underserved youth become further disadvantaged.

While blessed with many resources, more can be done. Delaware requires only one semester of civics at the high school level despite the fact that a main purpose of our schools is to prepare students for civic life. Civics instruction has also been significantly marginalized at the elementary level due to efforts aimed at improving achievement in other content areas, despite the research showing that content from social studies actually supports increases in literacy achievement.

Teachers are also having to contend with the “chilling effect” imposed by small but vocal groups that instill fears of engaging students in discussions of current events, including elections. Local school boards and legislators can provide our teachers with safeguards that authorize discussions vital to a well-functioning democracy. The Department of Education might also consider creating a career pathway for those interested in public service, such as the ones described at delawarepathways.org/pathways-programs.

But Civic Learning Week is not just aimed at mobilizing efforts in schools. It is a time for all Delawareans to recommit. Visit civiclearningweek.org for a list of events and help make civic learning a state and nationwide priority for a stronger democracy.

Take pride in all that has been accomplished but remain informed and engaged in civic activities that not only “keep” our republic but help it to flourish.

Reader reactions, pro or con, are welcomed at civiltalk@iniusa.org.

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