By Joel Sams
When Kirsten Baesler was just four years old, she started attending public meetings with her father, who served on a local planning and zoning commission. From an early age, she learned how local decisions are made and the difference everyday citizens can make in the political process. It changed the trajectory of her life.
Now serving as state school superintendent and administrator of the North Dakota Department of Public Instruction, Baesler oversees the education of nearly 120,000 students across her state, and she’s passionate about helping students understand that civic engagement can begin long before they’re old enough to vote.
“We start far, far too late in educating students about civics, and we do it in a way that is that is unexciting to them, irrelevant to them,” Baesler said. “Civics and civics education is too often a passive approach, a passive exercise, when in fact, it’s probably one of the most engaging things that our students can do. And that’s how it should be taught.”
Civics education offerings in public schools have been significantly reduced in recent decades, and civic literacy has similarly declined both among students and adults, according to the State Civic Education Toolkit published by CSG and the Education Commission of the States.
Across the U.S., state leaders like Baesler are calling for renewed attention to civic education and implementing creative strategies to engage students as active participants in democracy.
The longest-serving secretary of education in the country, Baesler was elected to her statewide post in 2012. In 2018, North Dakota updated its social studies curriculum to require, for the first time, an independent strand of civics education, beginning in kindergarten.
One of Baesler’s goals is to help students understand that civics is bigger than a far-off obligation to vote when they turn 18, and to help them see themselves as participants in democracy, not passive bystanders.
In North Dakota, civics education begins in kindergarten, just as kids experience a classroom setting and begin to learn about responsibilities to the larger group. As they progress through the grades, students learn about local, state and federal government, and Baesler says it’s important to back up the classroom learning with real experience.
“As they’re learning about third grade city government, they should be attending city commission meetings, they should be attending county commission meetings,” she said. “They should be finding out how they can be involved in making their city a better place.”
Baesler says civics education is one way to help the next generation see themselves as contributors to democracy rather than consumers. Unfortunately, efforts around civics education sometimes focus on the priorities of adults rather than allowing young people to address issues that matter to them. The most promising examples she’s seen, in contrast, come from teachers who serve as facilitators, encouraging students to identify important issues for themselves. In one example, students identified a need for device charging stations at a public pool.
“Kids have become dependent on their cell phones or their Apple watches to communicate with their parents on their location, and just to stay connected, and we’re running a community pool that did not have charging stations,” Baesler said.
After they had identified a need in their community, the students worked with their city commission and local parks and recreation board to create solar-powered charging stations.
“That is a perfect example —and there are hundreds more of those that are out there — where young people have been given the opportunity to identify a problem or a need, and then become citizens, working with their local governments and working their way through not only through construction permits but also, ‘How do we build that?’” Baesler said.
When it comes to educating young people about civics and engaging them in government, Baesler says the solution is simpler than the grown-ups realize.
“Adults overcomplicate things,” she said. “When we hear civics education and civic engagement, we immediately go to big people issues and big people problems. […] We forget that young people really make it less complicated and much more simple in their mind — solving simple, basic, relevant challenges in their life. They’re learning to be contributors instead of just consumers.”
New Jersey state Sen. Vin Gopal was teaching a government class at Monmouth University as an adjunct professor when a student, Zach Dougherty, brought up an idea to get more young people involved in civics. The idea turned into a framework, which turned into a bill that passed the New Jersey General Assembly and Senate with bipartisan support and was signed by Gov. Phil Murphy in January.
Gopal sponsored Senate Bill 3164, which created the New Jersey Legislative Youth Council to provide youth with a forum to participate in the democratic process, offer their unique perspectives to the legislature on issues affecting young people in New Jersey and to advise the legislature on policies, programs and services that could serve youth in the state.
The council is comprised of 40 members of the public, ages 15-23, who have been appointed by their legislators. Additionally, four members of the New Jersey legislature serve on the council as advisors.
Specific issues the council will consider include civics education, substance abuse, health, workforce issues, environmental protection, gun violence and school safety, homelessness and poverty, sexual harassment and violence, youth services, youth bias and hate crimes and more.
Gopal hopes the council will lead to increased understanding and involvement in politics and government. Even among adults, he frequently finds himself explaining the difference between U.S. senators and state senators, the three branches of government and the basic processes of law that state leaders often take for granted.
“Everyone has a different role,” he said. “There are a lot of layers of government, but I think having folks understand that is extremely helpful for a strong, representative democracy.”
One thing young people and adults alike misunderstand, Gopal says, is the amount of power that’s concentrated in local and state decision-making. Opening students’ eyes to the importance of government beyond Washington, D.C. is time well spent.
“I always tell people if you can give me five minutes with the President of the United States, any president, or five minutes with a local mayor or school board member, I’m going to take the local mayor or school board member because we might actually try to look at some local policies and we can actually get a change,” he said.
Civic education can also shape and re-frame how students understand the story of the United States.
Washington state Sen. Christine Rolfes was a legislative sponsor behind the creation of a now-required curriculum, Since Time Immemorial: Tribal Sovereignty in Washington State.
Passed in 2015, Senate Bill 5433 requires schools to teach the history, culture and government of Washington’s 29 federally recognized tribes. Rolfes says the legislation came about as a response to concerns expressed by Puget Sound tribes, specifically the Muckleshoot.
“The tribal elected leaders were frustrated with the lack of knowledge that the average Washingtonian had about, not just their history, but their legal standing — what their treaty rights were related to fishing and traditional hunting grounds and why they are allowed to have casinos, and all of the different rules that are a result of having a treaty with the federal government,” she said.
The Muckleshoot tribal council advanced the idea to take a curriculum already being developed by various tribes and make it a required component of K-12 education in the state. Their hope was to address the problem at its source, equipping the rising generation with a well-developed understanding of tribal history and rights.
Rolfes says the curriculum and legislation were primarily a result of listening to constituents and responding to their needs.
“It was listening, understanding and responding,” she said. “In that particular instance, the senators of both parties recognized the problem and the opportunity.”
Part of a comprehensive civic education is being honest about history — both the good and the bad, Rolfes says. In Washington, that means teaching students the full scope of tribal history and culture.
“Starting from time immemorial, they were here,” she said. “What was their culture? What did they eat? How did they live? And then the brief period of time where the families were torn apart with the boarding schools, for example, or how the reservations were formed —that part of the history is part of the larger story or the larger context of teaching the cultural significance of Native American tribes.”
Like Baesler and Gopal, Rolfes says it’s important to take civics beyond the classroom, and that real-world experience should be part of curriculum design.
“Civics has to be real life,” she said. “It needs to include volunteering in your community or writing to your local legislator with a policy proposal. Students have to be engaged. Just teaching them the three branches of government and that elections happen locally in odd years and nationally in even years — that’s just not good enough. It’s the actual engagement where the lifelong lessons come from.”