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Civics standards in Vermont were last updated in 2017 and were designed to align with the College, Career, and Civic Life (C3) framework. Vermont lays out Graduation Proficiencies for grades 2, 5, 8, and 12 of skills that students should be proficient in at each of those grade levels. The social studies standards are centered on the theme of Global Citizenship, which guides Vermont’s implementation of the C3 framework. The Graduation Proficiencies for civics generally focus on promoting an understanding of the structure and function of government at the local, state, and national levels and developing skills related to critical thinking and analysis. One Graduation Proficiency category is “taking informed action” which outlines, for each of the 4 grade levels, one participation oriented proficiency and culminates in the expectation to “apply a range of deliberative and democratic strategies and procedures to make decisions and take action in their classrooms, schools, and out-of-school civic contexts” by 12th grade. Another guiding document, Portrait of a Graduate (PoG) defines specific proficiencies related to six categories: Learner Agency, Global Citizenship, Academic Proficiency, Communication, Critical Thinking, and Well-being. The Vermont standards do not include specific guidelines for each grade level or specific course or exam requirements, with curriculum and assessment decisions left to the discretion of teachers and local union boards.
At the elementary school level, proficiencies generally focus on explaining the function of civic and political institutions, as well as the importance of participation in a democracy. They include character education through promoting traits such as fairness, equality, and respect; students are also expected to learn basic interpersonal skills such as collaborating with others. In later elementary school grades, character education is coupled with an understanding of the rights and responsibilities of citizens in the context of the Constitution. Students explore active citizenship participation in a theoretical sense through the calling to examine their own underlying beliefs about civics and understand how public policy is used to solve challenges in the community. While there is one standard that calls for application of democratic principles in school settings, it is unclear how many opportunities students get to participate in the civic life of the school community in practice.
At the middle school level, students are expected to understand the structure and function of government at a more complex level and to develop a theoretical understanding of civic virtues that were included in elementary grades. Students are also expected to analyze the effectiveness of public policy and decision making processes in solving community issues. The participation proficiency is that same as that of high school students: to “apply a range of deliberative and democratic strategies and procedures to make decisions and take action in their classrooms, schools, and out-of-school civic contexts”. Again, it is unclear how many opportunities students get to demonstrate this proficiency and in what context.
The high school proficiencies build upon those named at the middle school level, with “analyze” and “evaluate” being the main skills that students are expected to demonstrate. The high school proficiencies demonstrate a more global perspective than the lower grade levels by asking students to make comparisons of systems, institutions, and policies nationally and internationally. There is also a distinct focus on connecting the past and present, with several mentions of analyzing changes over time, as well as acknowledging contested aspects of current laws. These are encouraging foci for civics education that enables students to be visionaries and change-makers in society. However, Vermont does not require a civics or government course to graduate so it’s unclear when students are gaining these proficiencies and what teachers are responsible for their instruction. Again, only one proficiency under the “taking informed action” category of the global citizenship guidelines expects students to “apply” strategies to “make decisions” and “take action”.
Overall, Vermont demonstrates a commitment to a civic education that employs a critical lens, explores global and historical perspectives, and centers on concrete skills and proficiencies. However, very few of the skills that students are expected to demonstrate require active participation in or out of school. Students are taught to understand and explain the importance of civic participation starting at a young age, but are not necessarily encouraged nor required to apply that knowledge in practice. Likewise, discussions of social change movements and strategies are present at each level, but the focus remains on describing (2nd grade), illustrating (5th grade), comparing (8th grade), and analyzing (12th grade), instead of practicing the methods of social change being studied. Even within the category titled “Participation and Deliberation: Applying Civic Virtues and Democratic Principles,” no proficiency described for any grade level requires active participation. Also, a lack of grade- or course-specific standards makes it difficult to assess what is expected of educators in relation to each Graduation Proficiency.