This blog is a guest post by Hon. James Dillard, member of the Virginia State Board of Education, former state legislator and founding member of the Virginia Commission on Civic Education.
For over a decade, the Virginia Commission on Civic Education has championed the preparation of Virginia students for civic life. A key takeaway from Virginia’s Commission is that these efforts require patient persistence and to remain active and vigilant for new opportunities to improve civic outcomes. An example below is a new effort to integrate civic learning into state standards of accreditation.
The Virginia Commission on Civic Education was established by the General Assembly in 2005. Its goal is to prepare Virginia students to be active citizens and to give them the tools necessary to be effective participants in our society. The Commission’s mandate was renewed in 2017 (§ 30-351).
A major concern of the Commission has been the de-emphasis of social studies in the school curriculum. Successful work of the Commission has included revising the History and Social Science Standards of Learning with a focus on the middle school civics and economics course and the high school Virginia & United States government course. Updated standards emphasize inquiry and critical thinking skills.
The Commission has also played an important role in supporting teachers, establishing an annual civic education teacher conference, sharing online resources that provide evidence-based instructional strategies and offering professional development that illustrates how civic content knowledge and skills can be the focus of K-12 social studies. Commission model policies define how current and controversial issues can best be addressed in the classroom.
While the Commission is comprised of legislators and educators whose shared mission is to strengthen civic learning, it is challenging to sustain engagement and meaningful activity long term. One solution to maintain momentum has been the creation of a smaller working group, primarily of former social studies teachers and supervisors, with valuable support from public service organizations. This working group pushes forward and keeps the broader Commission members appraised and engaged. The efforts of the Commission working group are largely responsible for State Board of Education recognition of the importance of civic education and the inclusion of civic readiness and civic educational outcomes in their planning.
That recognition did not come easily or quickly. Over several years, I argued that civic readiness should be included as a goal equally important to career and college readiness. State Board of Education members would agree, but then other issues would take priority. The perseverance paid off at the June 2017 meeting when the Board of Education acted to establish preparing students to be “citizenship ready” as a co-equal goal.
Building on that commitment, the Commission is now helping define and incorporate authentic service-learning into Virginia’s Standards of Accreditation to ensure that schools foster civic responsibility. The Board is currently redesigning the Standards of Accreditation for schools and developing a Profile of a Virginia Graduate, in which civic readiness is explicit. In developing the Profiles of a Virginia Graduate, the Board established four domains: Content Knowledge, Workplace Skills, Community Engagement and Civic Responsibility and Career Exploration. The working group strengthened the domain for civics and presented it to the Board. While not officially adopted by the Board, the Department of Education will incorporate this language into the revised Standards of Accreditation.
As education leaders and policymakers continue to discuss how public education can best advance in the Commonwealth, those who advocate on behalf of the essential role of civic education should have a place at the table. A focus on community engagement and civic responsibility makes explicit civic learning connections; reflects the content knowledge, skills and dispositions citizenship readiness requires; and emphasizes inquiry-based instruction, informed action and application to real-world civic issues. We will continue to champion this important work.