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The Connecticut Elementary and Secondary Social Studies Frameworks were most recently updated in 2015 and follow the C3 framework for teaching social studies. Each grade level from K-8 corresponds with a specific content theme under the general umbrella of social studies. The civics topics approached in the Connecticut frameworks reflect a largely bureaucracy-oriented approach to civic education as the heaviest focus of the content is on governmental structures and functions. Past second grade there is little evidence of student-centered civic education as the bulk of the social studies topics are related to history and geography and civics is no longer highlighted as a primary discipline. Civics content standards become more sparse as the grade levels increase while narrowing in focus towards history and governmental structures. The framework includes standards for civics divided into three categories: “Civic and Political Institutions,” “Participation and Deliberation: Applying Civic Virtues and Democratic Principles,” and “Processes, Rules, and Laws.” Not every grade-level or grade-cluster framework includes standards for each of these categories. The content standards that are presented for each level are accompanied by one compelling question and multiple supporting questions to guide discussions relevant to the standards and the leveled content themes.
The four disciplines from the C3 framework are each introduced and highlighted at every grade level from K-4. Civics is notably integrated as a “discipline of focus” only from Kindergarten through fourth grade. The Kindergarten content study is focused on questions of the self within the communities of home, class, school, and town. This approach to civic education locates the learning in students’ own lives with the potential for culturally relevant teaching. Civics education continues in first grade with content study that extends the concept of community to the national and international level. The most relevant civic learning happens in the earliest grades under the themes of “society and ourselves” in first grade and “making a difference” in second grade. These themes represent a participatory approach to education in which the student locates themselves as a citizen in different communities and contexts. The recommended content study for second grade represents the most direct approach to participatory civics through the guiding principle that all people have the potential to make a difference within different levels of community. It is encouraging that in the second grade, protesting is identified in the content standards as one way that people can make a difference in society. The identification of protesting as a meaningful and valid way of civic engagement is often omitted from civic standards in favor of more traditional methods of civic engagement. In third grade, civics is relegated to the status of supporting discipline, not to gain primary status again until the high school grade cluster standards for the requisite civics and government class.
Civics is included at the middle school level as a “supporting discipline,” warranting the inclusion of three civics standards for the sixth and seventh grades. The single civics standard for the Civic and Political Institutions category is implied to be relevant only within the context of the content theme “World Regional Studies.” The compelling and supporting questions for this standard to “explain specific roles played by citizens” are geared towards international comparisons through specific references to different governments in different parts of the world. The chosen supporting inquiries could seem like leading questions that have less to do with students exploring different civic roles and more to do with characterizing other countries in a certain way. For example, questions such as “What role do religious leaders play in Middle Eastern governments” and “compared to nations with a free press, how is the media used differently in countries like China?” are more relevant to the topic of World Regional Studies than to students’ inquiries into the different roles citizens may play in society. While the standard itself refers to specific civic roles, the single compelling question presents a comparison between “regions with participatory governments” and “those without.” This again reveals that the civic learning in middle school is overshadowed by the larger content theme of international comparison.
At the high school level, students take a civics and government course as a graduation requirement. The framework for the semester-long course details the different themes and content to be covered, none of which include learning objectives that require students to produce original work or demonstrate civic participation. For example, students are required to “explain the variety of ways people can take part in civic ways” and “explore a variety of ways to take part in civic life” without any concrete expectation that these emergent citizens will practice developing their own civic agency or deliberation as part of the requisite civic education. The learning objective that most closely approaches a requisite for participation is the Participation and Deliberation standard to “apply civic virtues and democratic principles when working with others.” The barrier to this objective, however, is the lack of clarification as to what is meant by “civic virtues” or “democratic principles” and how those abstract concepts can be practically applied within the context of interpersonal interactions. Without any relevant civic learning that challenges students to put well-learned theory into action, students are denied structured preparation on how to participate in civil society. The compelling question for the Participation and Deliberation section of the high school standards, “how should I take part in civic life,” is less useful to consider in the abstract. The opportunity to explore these important questions in a meaningful way may easily be lost when left to the discretion of educators.
Overall, the Connecticut framework reveals stronger evidence of a targeted civics education in early elementary grades than in any of the later years of K-12 education. A high quality civics education is important at the early elementary level, as well as in the upper elementary grades, middle school, and high school. The lack of inclusion of the “Participation and Deliberation” category of civics standards within each leveled section of the curriculum framework reveals a neglect to engage students in participatory civic learning throughout their education. Furthermore, even when this category is highlighted, as within the second grade standards, the learning objectives only approach participation in the abstract, suggesting that students “explain how people can work together to make decisions in the classroom” rather than requiring them to actually practice those democratic skills within their immediate learning environment. Civic education in Connecticut is most frequently approached in the abstract or through a historical or geographical context. Students are rarely, if ever, enabled to locate civic learning within their own lives or to practice with different accessible forms of civic engagement. A culturally relevant approach to civic education that centers learning in students’ own lives would improve the quality of the Connecticut standards and guiding questions.