Unpacking Government: What Does Civics Education Look Like In Washington?

Apr 24, 2017

Since the election, there has been renewed interest in learning about how government works. 

Most high school students said in 2010 that they learned about civics in some form, according to the latest National Assessment of Educational Progress in the subject.

But many adults in Washington state and around the country are finding those high school government lessons difficult to remember. 

What Washington Teaches Kids

Social studies graduation requirements, like the requirements set for math and English, are determined by the state Board of Education and implemented by the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction and individual school districts.

Unlike other parts of those requirements, civics is codified in state law.

Legislators passed a law in 2009 requiring high school students to take the equivalent of at least a semester of civics covering the country's foundational documents, government procedure and electoral issues. The class of 2016 was the first class to graduate with the full civics requirement.

The law provides some flexibility. For example, schools may create a stand-alone civics course or embed civics into U.S. history or "contemporary world problems," which are also required.

OSPI can suggest lessons and provides resources for teachers on the best ways to teach civics.

"Previously, of course, we know that kind of old-school learning is where the teacher is standing and delivering," said Lexi Samorano, social studies specialist at Highline Public Schools.

Now, more teachers are using games, service learning and simulations -- like mock trials and elections -- to help students understand both how the government works and how to interact with it.

"Social studies is real life," Samorano said. "So I think ... talking about what's going on in our everyday lives is where we start, not where we finish."

Starting Early

Samorano used to teach social studies to middle and high school students in Kent before taking the job at Highline. Now she advocates on behalf of other social studies teachers and helps coach them in best practices, including how to approach civics.

Washington is a local control state, so it's ultimately up to each school district to decide what to include in civics lessons, how they are taught and when civics should be introduced.

For example, Highline requires a stand-alone civics course for high school students. The district also tries to incorporate civics into elementary and middle school social studies.

For younger students, civics looks like learning how to negotiate disagreements, making class charters and dealing with authority figures, Samorano said.

"Every grade level kind of builds up on itself from even our lowest grades all the way through graduation," Samorano said.

But not every school district takes that approach, according to University of Washington professor Walter Parker, who's been studying civics education for more than 30 years.

"The biggest change we've had that's sort of a crisis [is] when elementary schools started focusing on reading and math," Parker said. "Because what happens to the sciences and the social studies?"

Despite the fact that nearly every high school student in the country reports covering civics in some form, most twelfth graders scored below proficient on the latest national civics assessment.

Some of that disparity may have to do with which lessons students learn and how much time they spend. But Parker attributes some of it to curriculum narrowing in the lower grades.

"When that happens, then in the middle grades, teachers don't have a foundation to rest their instruction on, and that's a severe setback," Parker said.

Second-grade students can start learning about their neighborhoods before being introduced to more formal concepts like the branches of government in the fourth and fifth grades, Parker said.

Samorano and Parker agree that starting early and focusing on the schools will help kids grow up to be engaged citizens.

But that doesn't help all of the adults who are already feeling lost in politics.

Adult Civics

Marguerite Giguere is a real estate agent and the host of the Move to Tacoma podcast. She decided to convene an Adult Civics Happy Hour after realizing how little she knew about her local government.

"I think not knowing that there were nine City Council people and thinking there were only five, that was pretty embarrassing," Giguere said.

She's far from alone. When she first announced the event, hundreds of people said they were interested in coming. The 75 tickets that were available were claimed in one afternoon.

Lincoln High School teacher Nate Bowling and Metro Parks Tacoma Commissioner Erik Hanberg kept it local. They answered questions about the difference between district and at-large City Council members, Tacoma's council-manager form of government and the ways the city interacts with county, state and federal governments.

That focus is important in a city set to elect a mayor and four City Council members in addition to hiring a new city manager this year.

"I think a lot of normal people that don't have jobs in politics or government are not quite aware of what a big year this is for [the] city of Tacoma," Giguere said.

Parker, the university professor, says surveys bear that out. He points out most adults can name the U.S. president, but naming a state senator is considered a difficult question. And the most common form of civic participation, voting, drops significantly as races get smaller and more local.

"I think the reason adults don't retain civics education is that you don't use it," Giguere said.

Thursday's civics happy hour in Tacoma is just one of several grassroots civics learning events and initiatives that are popping up around the region.

"I think a lot of people are motivated to engage right now, but they don't have any idea how to do it effectively," Giguere said.

This is the final installment of our series Unpacking Government. That link will take you to the rest of the series. Keep asking questions at unpackinggovernment@knkx.org.