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In Arkansas, a civics education strand is integrated into the Social Studies Curriculum Framework, which was last revised in 2014. Civics education is not isolated or emphasized within the social studies standards except for one required semester of a Civics course in high school. Arkansas does follow the C3 College, Career, and Civic Life Framework for Social Studies Standards and specify civic standards for each grade level and grade cluster. At the elementary level, the standards are effectively broken down by grade level and do offer relevant and age-appropriate learning outcomes for the standard topics. However, the learning outcomes specified for each grade level only approach the idea of participatory citizenship through an analytical lens rather than directly requiring students to participate in or create projects centered on civic topics that are meaningful and accessible to the students.
The K-4 civics standards for Arkansas describes the learning outcome for the Participation and Deliberation strand to be the analysis of civic rights, roles, and responsibilities. While the content standards are helpfully consistent in locating civic learning within the relatable environment of the school or local community, there are no concrete mandates for students to actively engage as a civic participant in a community that they belong to. The standards that most resemble a participatory approach vaguely call for students to “demonstrate ways of being a good citizen in multiple settings” or “use deliberative processes when making decisions and acting upon civic problems.” These standards fall short of enabling students to actively practice participating as citizens of their school or local communities though they effectively imply the importance of such participatory activities. At the elementary level, the learning outcome that best represents an effective participatory approach to civic education is the expectation that students will “use listening, consensus-building, and voting procedures in the classroom.” This standard is present at the first and second grade levels and progresses to the use of “deliberative processes” in third and fourth grade. It is unclear how these standards should be implemented by educators and whether students at the elementary level are actually required to participate in these processes at the classroom or school level.
At the middle school level, a strand of civics and government standards are identified for grades 5 and 6 that mirrors the elementary level standards. The three content standards for the late elementary civics and government strand are exactly the same as the standards for K-4, and the learning outcomes only call for analytical thinking without requiring any participatory civic engagement or production of original work. The social studies standards for grades 7 and 8 are focused on Geography and 19th century U.S. History. Civics is not present to any meaningful degree in either of the middle school social studies curriculum frameworks.
High school students are required to take a semester-long Civics course and a civics exam in order to graduate. The high school civic standards are only in regards to this single course and do not extend into any other semesters or subjects. The lowest passing grade for the civics exam required for graduation is a 60%, and the test is modeled off of the USCIS citizenship exam. The efficacy of this exam in assessing students’ abilities to engage in meaningful civic participation is left unaddressed. The high school course specifications allude to participatory civics education, but don’t extend to tangible standards that call for higher-level thinking in the creation of original work or the engagement in project-based civics learning. Teaching students the “concept” of rights and responsibilities, the “role” of interest groups, and the “importance” of civic participation is not the same as actually engaging students in any of these activities or practices. However, as state policy, Arkansas does provide students with class credit for completing community service. This indicates a recognition of the value of service-learning, though that does not guarantee that the service-learning will be effectively connected to the concept of civic responsibility.
The standards express the goal that students will receive a strong foundation in civics in government during the K-8 education through the embedding of civic education into each grade level. However, civics is neither highlighted nor integrated into the social studies curriculum at the 7th and 8th grade levels, so it is unclear how the foundation created in elementary school will be maintained for students moving into high school. In high school, students are only required to take a single semester course on civics and government that focuses heavily on analysis of bureaucratic structures and functions. There is a lack of participatory civics education in Arkansas, as the only standards that actually require students to engage in meaningful ways as young citizens capable of civic participation are at the early elementary level. As students approach the transition into full adult citizenship, they are denied opportunities to practice civic participation within their own communities. If the entire social studies curriculum for K-12 followed the trajectory that the civic education standards for early elementary education set out, students in Arkansas could participate in relevant civic action on a relatable level throughout their education.