For perhaps a majority of voters in the United States, formal civic education takes place in a high school government course. Yet for many students, particularly those in poverty-impacted schools, government courses regularly fail to be rigorous, ambitious or engaging.
Professor Walter Parker of the University of Washington College of Education lays out a new vision for civic education in his paper "Reinventing the High School Government Course," published in the latest edition of Democracy & Education.
Written with teachers of high school government courses in mind, Parker and co-author Jane Lo (PhD '15), assistant professor of education at Florida State University, present the culminating version of a project-based adaption of the AP Government and Politics course.
In partnership with educators at three school districts (Bellevue, Seattle and Des Moines, Iowa), Parker and his colleagues created, implemented and refined their project-based version of the course through their Knowledge in Action project, supported by the George Lucas Educational Foundation and Spencer Foundation. Students taking the course have done as well or better on the AP Government test than comparison students, while also finding the courses and projects to be personally meaningful.
Three principles guided the development and refinement of the course:
- Rigorous projects as the spine of the course
- Quasi-repetitive project cycles, where projects build on one another cumulatively
- Engagement that creates a need to know
Embedded in the new high school government course are six simulations that build on one another and deepen students' understanding of core concepts and skills, with their immediate engagement creating a need to learn new information:
- Founders' Intent — Students are introduced to role-playing and the system of limited government and divided powers that the Constitution creates by engaging in deliberations on controversial constitutional issues.
- Elections — Students simulate a presidential election while also wrestling with the question "What is the proper role of government in a democracy?"
- SCOTUS — After electing a president in the previous simulation, students take roles in the judicial branch of government to learn about the impact of their election on the Supreme Court of the United States.
- Congress — Students serve as legislators and learn not only about how bills become laws but how politics influence public policy.
- Government in Action — In the culminating project, students serve as consultants to various interest groups and draw up action plans to help each client advance its agenda through the political system.
Parker noted the new course is now being piloted in Chicago Public Schools.
"A rigorous, authentic and meaningful government course is possible even on a crowded, accelerated platform where the vast array of topics colludes with the high-stakes test to produce, too often, a 'pancake course' where the only apparent option is to duck and cover,” Parker said. "We've seen that we can innovate and make high school government a profound, adaptive civic learning experience."
Walter Parker, Professor of Education
Dustin Wunderlich, Director for Marketing and Communications