A group of Providence students and parents just made national news by suing Rhode Island. They allege that the state’s failure to provide civic education in public schools violates students’ constitutional rights—by failing to educate students about their rights, Providence public schools prevent students from exercising them. But regardless of how the legal arguments in Cook v. Raimondo areresolved, one thing is clear: Rhode Island’s civic education is woefully inadequate. Some claim that core subjects such as math and reading should be prioritized over civics, considering the state’s struggles in those areas. Such an argument misses the point. A comprehensive civic education can empower students to better advocate for, and ultimately improve, their own educational environments; for this reason, the Rhode Island education system should prioritize civic education.
The current state of civic education is bleak. Though Rhode Island is recognized as one of the birthplaces of American democracy, the state lacks a civic education requirement. In 2014, only 23 percent of American eighth graders were proficient in civics, according to the National Assessment for Educational Progress. This lack of proficiency can be partially attributed to the widespread belief that civic education is nothing more than rote memorization, reciting the Constitution, and learning the three branches of government. However, civics at its best is about more than just facts: It can teach students how to take agency in their schools and in their communities.
With this knowledge, students would be empowered to reinvigorate the education system—a fix Rhode Island could certainly use. Results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress demonstrate RI’s underperformance compared to its New England peers: The state trailed Massachusetts by 20 points in eighth-grade math scores and saw an overall 27-point achievement gap between white and Black students. Such examples of extreme educational disparity highlight the need for ambitious change.
The survivors of the Parkland school shooting have demonstrated how civic education can translate into effective student agency. These students have been consistently lauded for their passion, political activism, and powerfully articulated message. Uncoincidentally, they also benefit from the most robust state-sponsored civic engagement curriculum in the country. For instance, the Florida curriculum encourages community service as an opportunity for students to apply their learning outside the classroom. The success of the Parkland student movement demonstrates that students are willing and able to push for democratic change when they’re given the tools to do so.
Rhode Island, too, has seen examples of successful student activism. The Providence Student Union (PSU), an organization led by local Providence high school students, aims to build leadership skills by advocating for students’ rights. They recently led a campaign for Ethnic Studies classes, during which the PSU organized rallies, community meetings, and curriculum planning to create the first Ethnic Studies class in five high schools in 2016. These schools are mostly comprised of students of color, but their history curriculums barely reference minority narratives. The addition of Ethnic Studies courses, a feat accomplished by direct student agency, made the school curriculum more inclusive and representative of the people it serves.
While the PSU’s advocacy was impressive, students shouldn’t have to teach themselves how to organize. Rhode Island needs a comprehensive civic education curriculum, one focused on building practical community engagement skills that students can put to work in their own schools. Students know firsthand where change needs to start, and putting power in their hands will give them greater agency and control over their education.
A comprehensive civic education system must go beyond facts and memorization. It should incorporate the discussion of current events, encouraging students to engage with controversial issues as independent thinkers and future voters. Most importantly, students must be given opportunities to practice engagement in their community, whether that be through organizations like PSU, mock classroom elections, or community service projects.
Civic education must also begin early. Teachers should start discussions about democracy in elementary school. Democratic classrooms, where decisions are made collaboratively, are a perfect place to start. Civic education teaches students how to be responsible for their behavior while simultaneously instilling democratic values. Given the challenges Rhode Island faces, civics can’t just be an extracurricular opportunity for the privileged few; every Rhode Islander must have an equal shot at effective participation in democracy. If Rhode Island wants to live up to its title as the “birthplace of democracy”, it needs to give its young people the power and skills to be a source of change in their communities.