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The Massachusetts History and Social Science Curriculum Framework was created in 2018 and based off of previous curriculum frameworks from 1997 and 2003. The 2018 curriculum framework is a comprehensive document that spans from pre-K to high school graduation. To accompany the social studies standards, Massachusetts includes a civics guidance document created in December of 2021. That document is titled the Civics Project Guidebook and was created in response to Massachusetts legislation Acts of 2018 Chapter 296. The civics guidebook is meant to guide educators in implementing civic learning in accordance with the 2018 “act to promote and enhance civic engagement.” The commitment to civics education is demonstrated with the attendance to the stipulations of this legislation within the curriculum framework for social studies. Within the civics guidance document, the idea of “Student-Led Civics Projects” embodies a participatory approach to civics education by creating consistent learning opportunities that are both student-centered and project-based. The central focus on student-led projects is justified with an explanation of the importance of civics projects as means of helping students develop as engaged citizens. There is a focus on culturally responsive pedagogy and a clear framework for presenting the six distinct steps of scaffolding student-led civics projects. The Civics Project Guidebook embodies an effective participatory approach to equipping students with the practiced skills necessary to engage in society as agentive citizens. As a whole, the History and Social Science Curriculum Framework is centered around the “renewed mission” of preparing students for “civic life in a democracy” through social studies education.
There are seven standards presented in the Massachusetts 2018 History and Social Science Curriculum Framework that directly pertain to civic knowledge, skills, and dispositions. The student-led civics projects, which are highlighted in eighth grade and in high school, align with those seven standards for informed citizenship. The realms of those seven standards include the demonstration of civic knowledge skills, and dispositions in practice standard 1, the formulation of questions or problems paired with the pursuit of research in practice standard 2, the organization of information from multiple sources in practice standard 3, the evaluation of credible sources in practice standards 4 and 5, and the synthesis of evidence and reasoning in standard 6 to create arguments that lead to concrete steps towards taking informed action in practice standard 7. There are explicit connections drawn between the core practice skills identified in the standards and their relevance towards “political equality and civic engagement,” as well as the focus on digital citizenship in standards regarding news and media literacy. Those seven practice standards are meant to be integrated throughout every year of education and as a template for engaging students in the creation of original work and the execution of intentional action embody a participatory approach to civics.
The standards for elementary school consist of grade-specific standards for each grade from Pre-K to fifth grade. The main themes of the early elementary civics education standards approach the idea of democratic principles, with those principles specified as “equality, fairness, and respect.” Students are expected to practice those principles within the classroom communities through second grade. The focus on certain qualities and principles of democratic citizenship resembles a character-based orientation towards civics, though the expectation that students will practice those character principles in the classroom reveals a participatory approach to character oriented content. Those expectations for putting civic learning into practice are expressed as grade-level standards that require students to “demonstrate” certain understandings. For example, one first-grade standard requires students to “demonstrate understanding that a leader is also a member of a group, but takes on a different role with more responsibility for inspiring others, organizing and delegating activities, and helping the group make decisions.” This is a relevant civics concept that teachers are recommended to approach with a participatory orientation, as evidenced by the suggestion that this standard could be met by students “working on a project in a small group [where students] take on the roles of leader, recorder or reporter, illustrator, or timekeeper.” Concrete examples for how students could put their learning into practice demonstrates a participatory orientation to implementing civics standards that local educators will hopefully integrate in order to provide students with real-world opportunities to develop the skills and agency of engaged civic leaders.
The upper elementary grade levels transition from a focus on character-oriented content to bureaucratic-oriented content that is integrated within courses of study targeting certain historical eras and contexts. The content standards for third through fifth grade don’t identify a separate strand of expectations regarding civics education. These upper elementary years target geographic and historic learning content that integrates civics without setting forth explicit standards for civics education. All grade levels are expected to address the seven core standards for history and social science practice, which center on the development of civic knowledge, skills, and dispositions. Third and fourth grade center on studies regarding the history and culture of Massachusetts and the different geographic regions of the United States, respectively. Fifth grade standards cover historical themes from the colonial era of the United States to the Civil Rights Movement. Fifth grade standards approach bureaucratic topics such as the origins of democracy in Massachusetts and the U.S. as well as the specifics of the founding principles expressed in national documents such as the Constitution. The overarching guiding questions for the exploration of these eras and topics are named as “what is the meaning of the statement, ‘All men are created equal’” and “is a person ever justified in disobeying a law,” which resemble an inquiry-based approach to historical content that might enable students to consider varying perspectives regarding the founding documents of the nation and the evolving nature of law.
The middle school standards span sixth through eighth grade with thematic focus on year-long social studies topics. Similar to the elementary grades, each middle school grade level has a distinct set of content standards that align with middle school literacy standards and integrate with the seven core standards regarding civic skills. In sixth and seventh grade the focus rests on international geography and comparisons among ancient and modern civilizations. The standards for the grade 6-7 band are titled World Geography and Cultures Content Standards and pertain to investigations regarding world geography and ancient civilizations, which are meant to connect to ideas of society and government that will be explored further in eighth grade and high school. Eighth grade has a core focus on civics and the thematic title of the year is United States and Massachusetts Government and Civic Life. The introduction to the middle grades standards details flexible options for progressing through units and content and covers the standard expectations for civics education in eighth grade. The expressed purpose of the eighth grade standards include expanding capacities for civic reasoning, strengthening abilities to conduct research, and approaching big questions regarding citizenship, the Constitution, and the common good. One of the seven topics that define the content standards for eighth grade civics concerns the freedom of the press with the goal to develop media literacy in students, which is an important topic of modern civics. The flexibility of the standards indicates that local educators and districts have a degree of discretion in designing instruction in accordance with best practices for inspiring students to move towards the goal of scaffolding students in becoming “informed and engaged citizens.”
Most of the eighth grade civics content aligns with a bureaucratic orientation, as the majority of topics concern the foundations, development, and institution of the United States and Massachusetts government or the nuances of national documents and legal processes. Two topics stand out from the in-depth explorations of government and political systems. Topic 4 centers on the rights and responsibilities of citizens and Topic 7 investigates freedom of the press along with news and media literacy. Topic 4 alludes to a character orientation with its overarching theme and contains content that resembles bureaucratic and participatory orientations. The character orientation is most visible in the mandate to “define and provide examples of fundamental principles and values of American political and civic life,” which includes suggested concepts such as liberty, justice, law and order, due process, diversity, patriotism, and popular sovereignty. Each of those concepts has philosophical controversy and exists within societal context, which the learning objective to “define and provide examples”’ might not approach effectively in-depth. However, another standard requires the analysis of issues that involve “liberty in conflict with equality or authority, individual rights in conflict with the common good, or majority rule in conflict with minority rights,” which could create opportunities to approach the complexities and conflicts that characterize U.S. democracy.
The content standards for the five bureaucratically oriented topics are detailed and include key primary sources for each topic but generally lack participatory learning objectives. Most frequently, learning mandates involve active verbs such as “analyze,” “compare and contrast,” “explain,” “describe,” or “distinguish,” which are relevant to the detailed content students are expected to learn but do position them as passive receivers of information. There are notable expectations to this pattern, such as the standard that requires students to create a research-informed oral or written presentation about one area of society that Supreme Court decisions have influenced and how that influence changes citizens’ lives over time. The exploration of the free press connects to the First Amendment and connects to the importance of news and media literacy. The standards in this realm ask students to explain, evaluate, and give examples with one opportunity to analyze the point of view and claims of a news source pertaining to a public policy issue. The latter learning objective represents a participatory approach to the content as students are asked to put their learning into practice with an exercise in media literacy. Another content standard that approaches a participatory orientation asks students to “describe” how citizens of a democracy have various opportunities to participate in the political process, listing elections, political parties, and interest groups as examples. The learning objective “describe” does not give students an opportunity to practice means of political participation as they learn about them in the abstract.
In high school, students get the opportunity to lead their own civics project as outlined in the civics guidance document. These projects should originate from students’ own choices and culminate in them taking “informed and intentional action with the goal of long-term change.” The orientation towards students taking action for sustainable change is participatory in nature and positions students as active citizens even before they reach voting age. Civics is not a required course at the high school level but an elective covering United States Government and Politics is offered as an advanced course. While this course is optional, all students are required to participate in a student-led civics project that helps their community on some level. This sort of initiative positions students to practice effecting change within communities and society. Projects can address civic issues on the local level, such as the organization of a food pantry, or on the state or national level, such as an organized movement to endorse the introduction of new laws. The projects consist of six steps that include “taking action” and “reflecting and showcasing” as the final two steps. These processes of executing an action plan and then presenting that work after reflecting on how the action effected change are critical for students learning to practice civic engagement in realms that are meaningful to them. The showcasing aspect orientates student work towards real-world audiences and positions them as change-makers who are capable of taking informed action and participating in society as young citizens. Essentially, the mandatory student-led civics project in high school exemplifies a participatory orientation.
The required standards for the high school courses on United States History are designed on the assumption that all students will have completed a civics course in eighth grade and can thus “expand their capacity” for political reasoning and “strengthen their ability” to conduct inquiries involving primary sources. The U.S. History courses build on the eighth grade civics course and extend the study of historical eras up to present day. The courses are meant to be taught in a two-year sequence with focus on “the ideas that have united the country” and “how citizens have fought to expand civil rights and defend democratic processes at home and in other parts of the world” among other topics. There is an allusion to American exceptionalism in the positive portrayal of the fight for democratic processes in other parts of the world as well as in the theme of “how the United States became a world power.” Research is highlighted at the high school level as a necessary daily learning activity that can be supplemented with provided resources on inquiry and media literacy. High school standards require students to lead formal research projects using primary sources, which would develop skills relevant to civics education located within the study of historical content.
The content standards for the high school course titled United States Government and Politics are largely bureaucratic in orientation as they mainly investigate content related to national governmental foundations, interconnecting societal structures, and specific functions of governmental branches and political realms. The use of guiding questions implies an inquiry-based approach to these bureaucratically oriented topics. For example, the supporting question regarding the foundations of the U.S. government asks “how has the nation acted to narrow discrepancies between the founding ideals and reality,” which positions students as sense-makers rather than passive absorbers of information and also connects the past with the present to make historical learning more relevant to students. One standard requires students to use the primary sources of the founding documents of the U.S. and Massachusetts to research and interpret ideas about government, including ideas of popular sovereignty, individual rights, natural rights, and the social contract in the wording of the standard. Another standard for this course mirrors the middle school civics standard in which students are expected to create original opinions and presentations by defending a position on “issues in which foundational ideas or values are in tension or conflict.” The examples provided included issues that involve “individual rights in conflict with national or community interests or perceptions of the common good,” which is a contentious realm of civics within modern democratic society and beneficial for students to explore through their own perspective. This elective course demonstrates signs of a participatory approach to bureaucratic content as many standards require students to conduct research, construct arguments, and present original conclusions.
Massachusetts’ framework for implementing student-led civics projects in local classrooms demonstrates a participatory approach to student-centered and project-based civic learning. Though the student-led civics projects are only highlighted in eighth grade and high school, they embody essential characteristics of the participatory orientation by positioning students as active citizens and providing pragmatic opportunities for them to practice civic engagement on accessible levels. The Civics Guidance Document exemplifies a participatory approach to civics education through the requirement that educators facilitate the creation of student-led civics projects. The clear guidance regarding the teacher’s role in civics education would enable local educators to effectively incorporate best teaching practices into civics education concerning the creation of original work, the discussion of real-world issues, and the implementation of action plans created by students. These practices are visible in the 2018 History and Social Science Curriculum Framework itself through the consistent integration of the seven core standards regarding civic skills, knowledge, and dispositions. Those civic dispositions are identified as “respect for others, commitment to equality, and the ability to consider various perspectives and engage in civil discourse,” which demonstrates ideals of character education that create space for dissidence and movements towards social justice that may come into conflict with foundational structures of law or government. The standards that address the reality of various conflicts between interpretations of democratic principles also expand the conception of civics education to encompass the evolving nature of democracy. Overall, Massachusetts demonstrates an inquisitive participatory approach to civics education that enables students to create original work, draw their own connections between the past and present, and actively practice accessible and scaffolded forms of civic engagement.