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California’s Civic standards are embedded within the History and Social Science content standards and follow the C3 framework for project- and inquiry-based learning. The most recent content standards regarding Civics in California are from 2016 and resemble an updated version of those set forth in 2000. California does provide educators with a full History and Social Science curriculum that incorporates “civic-learning content and activities” throughout the course descriptions and content standards. The framework highlights the nationally acclaimed three Cs of College, Career, and Civic Life. California’s content standards include a special appendix that provides increased detail on the state’s preferred approach to civics education, titled: Educating for Democracy: Civic Education in the History–Social Science Curriculum. This appendix explains that the requisite features of a high-quality civics education include “knowledge and foundational content, cognitive skills, participatory skills, and dispositions that enable citizens to engage effectively in political and civic society” (p. 774). The intention is stated that all four of these components should be present at every grade level, and embedded within other subjects. In California, civics standards are accompanied by a Civic-Learning Compendium created by the Constitutional Rights Foundation and the Los Angeles County Office of Education. This Compendium offers educators ample resources and recommendations for civic learning that align with the statewide content standards. Though endorsed by the California Council for the Social Studies, this collaborative document exists to augment the History-Social Science Curriculum, which is the core focus of our qualitative analysis.

Elementary School

Within the elementary level standards, students are introduced to basic civics concepts throughout the grade levels. In Kindergarten through third grade, students are expected to build citizenship definitions and learn about what it means to be an “American” through the study of national and state symbols, history of the area, and government institutions, documents, and practices. The California curriculum includes “Classroom Examples” of how to implement the content standards and set students up for success in achieving the learning outcomes. One classroom example at the kindergarten level details the way a teacher could use a story text to engage students in questions of citizenship and social rules in the immediately accessible context of a child breaking rules at his own school. The curriculum also provides suggestions for accessible material to help educators provide relevant examples of citizenship for students to relate to. There is a character-heavy focus to civics education at these early elementary grade levels, and students seem to be exposed to ideas of “good” citizenship through the discretion and filter of their educator. In this way, there is a risk of portraying citizenship as defined by rule-following or national loyalty rather than as a complex personal experience of making choices and taking actions within society.The investigations of the rights and responsibilities of citizens in first grade does include a suggestion to illustrate democracy within the classroom through immersive experiential learning involving voting on leaders who will then make decisions for the class or table group. This is a good model for engaging students in developing an understanding of representative democracy, and especially through the critical consideration of the benefits and drawbacks of such a system. However, this is only a suggestion for educators. The California standards in second grade focus on historical figures through the problematic lens of heroification that frames the narrative around “the importance of individual action and character in one’s life” without sufficient recognition of social and political context nor the nuanced complexity of each historical figure as a person, not a hero. 

The California social studies standards do take a problematic lens on the indigenous population of California, exemplified in part with the diction that labels the indigenous people of the United States as “American Indians” or “California Indians,” which are offensive and inaccurate terms. In third grade, students investigate the questions of why people settled in California along with who the first people were in students’ communities. These guiding questions are accompanied by inquiries regarding how the community has changed over time, why people moved to the community, and what issues are important in the community. These lines of inquiries could lead to discussions of justice and reparation for the genocide on the indigenous people of this land, but could also lead to harmful portrayals of the “settlers” that justify the violence and genocide that ensued through colonization. Students in fourth grade also approach learning about California’s state history through the lens of the “immigrants” who settled in California and established its statehood. The indigenous population’s experience of these settlers is virtually erased from the curriculum, as is any implication that the “immigrants” in question could also be considered and labeled as colonizers. The content regarding the “Pre-Columbian Settlements and People” centers the experience of the settlers, as exemplified in the title of “Pre-Columbian,” and only asks students to consider the indigenous Californian population in terms of the past without tying historical inequities to present conditions. To enable students to develop critical civic agency aligned towards social justice, it is necessary to take a critical approach to the ongoing effect of settler colonialism and societal marginalization on the sociocultural realities of the indigenous people of California and the United States.

Middle School

In sixth and seventh grade, students do not receive targeted or embedded civics education as the focus is exclusively on World History and Geography, which does approach the development of global citizenship. In the eighth grade, civic learning is reinvigorated through a U.S. History curriculum with detailed units that highlight important topics of civic learning under the theme of “Growth and Conflict.” For example, one of the eighth grade “Classroom Examples” from the curriculum provides a detailed lesson exemplar regarding “The Civic Purpose of Public Education” that centers on the meaning and purpose of attending school. The classroom examples, along with the unit descriptions themselves, move towards leveling the content in an appropriate way for a diverse body of students with varying levels of prior knowledge. The framing of complex questions in ways that anyone could critically consider helps move the standards closer to that goal of accessibility for all educators and students. The classroom examples in the California curriculum are a good model for how state standards and curricula can be more approachable for educators looking to design lessons that work towards the standard learning objectives for the content. Other meaningful questions that are presented within the unit descriptions encourage students to inquire about the nature of government and its functions, the legacy of slavery in the United States, and the overarching question of “who is considered an American.” 

The eighth grade curriculum includes detailed descriptions of each unit, along with classroom examples for certain topics, and a single blurb about “Defining American Citizenship.” It seems the blurb exists as an overview of this whole course of study. It summarizes the ways in which educators will highlight ideas of citizenship and voting, and how those practices have been contested and changed over time. It identifies the learning objectives for the course as three distinct facets of civic learning: learning to be a citizen that is good, participatory, and socially just. Good citizens, according to the curriculum, simply obey laws. Participatory citizens are those who vote, advocate for causes, and take on jury duty. Socially just citizens engage in community service and stand up for the rights of others. These definitions are the extent of what is offered in the course summary, and there is a lack of critical consideration of how these categories can be limiting, conflictual, or culturally weighted. This civics course also suggests that learning about the immigration and naturalization process will “enhance students’ tolerance of and respect for others, help students develop an appreciation for the diversity of this country, and reinforce lessons of citizenship.” However, it is unclear as to how the material will be presented in a way that moves towards these highly personal and complex learning outcomes. Without content standards or learning outcomes that require students to produce original work or express original opinions regarding respect for others or appreciation of diversity, the curriculum is lacking in formative assessment of students’ personal outlooks. Similarly, the suggestion that students will “participate in service-learning projects that engage them in the democratic process by planning and participating in such activities as mock elections, associated student body elections and meetings, the naturalization process, voter registration, community service, and National History Day” presents a participatory-approach to civics education that only lacks tangible requirements and structures for students to actually practice these activities.

High School

At the high school level, civics is integrated within the History-Social Science Curriculum and highlighted in grades eleven and twelve. The California social studies framework does give details on each grade level, even when civics is not a primary discipline. As a graduation requirement, high school students must pass a semester-long class on Principles of American Democracy. Within this course on American Government, a subsection is dedicated to addressing “Comparative Governments and the Challenges of Democracy”, including questions on the role of civil dissent and when it is necessary. This kind of inquiry suggests the potential to frame government and society as an evolving reality that responds to its people and their evolving needs. An approach to civics education that considers and validates diverse experiences and perspectives can enable students to better understand their own roles as potential change agents within their democracy. The question of students’ roles and dispositions is clarified within the text of the Civic Education Appendix, which defines the dispositions of engaged citizens as ““respect for legitimate authority, opposition to tyranny, tolerance, respect for diversity and different points of view, adherence to law, respect for and support of the rights of others, responsibility, equity and inclusiveness, being informed and interested in political and community issues, and active participation in civic life” (p. 776). However, at the high school level, there are no requisites to practice these dispositions or to produce any original work that demonstrates the qualities of respect, responsibility, or active participation.


The participatory orientation to civics education is evident in the suggestions for lessons that encourage students to take an active role in civic learning and in their local communities. For example, the curriculum suggests that educators could give students project-based learning assignments in which they “identify and analyze a community problem,” “propose solutions,” and “take civic actions to implement those solutions, including the creation of evidence-based and multimedia presentations.” This is an excellent suggestion for an assignment that would require students to actively practice and demonstrate civic engagement in a meaningful context. The problem is that it is only a suggestion, and educators are left to decide whether to actually require the production of these projects. The Civic Education Appendix defines a key learning outcome of high-quality civic education as the development of “critical participatory skills” through civic learning with an orientation towards intentional service, but the standards lack concrete mandates for students to practice with those skills in real contexts. There is curricular attention given to situating students’ learning within the realm of “real civic life” and making connections between the past, present, and future, but without requisite participatory projects, educators might choose not to embark on project-based approaches to developing civic agency in students. The goals for students to develop critical participatory skills and understand their potential as agents of change will likely be missed without requisite practice within a relevant civic learning environment. Overall, the diction and content of the Civics appendix seems to prioritize participation but still fall short of ensuring that all students will receive this kind of high-quality participatory education.

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