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The state of Washington has outlined civic education expectations based on the College, Career, and Civic Life (C3) framework for every grade level from Kindergarten to the final year of high school. Washington’s current standards were adopted in 2019 and demonstrate an intentional focus on civics education centered on the six Proven Practices for enhancing civic education outlined in the 2011 Guardian of Democracy report. These standards have not yet been updated to include any of the further developments to the Proven Practices framework. Washington accompanies the curricular focus on civics education with new civics education requisites for high school graduation. These requisites were activated in the 2020-2021 school year through direct expectations that all schools will provide high school students with one semester-long civics course that covers a range of specified material and concepts. The Revised Code of Washington identified civics content that was merely embedded in other social studies courses to be insufficient to meet the full requirements of RCW 28A.230.094. This civics education initiative includes “the study and completion of the civics component of the federally administered naturalization test” as a required facet of civics education content without addressing the relevance of the naturalization test as a means of assessing civic potential. The Washington State Legislature also established a civics education teacher training program through RCW 28A.415.285. The general goal of expanding civics education teacher training programs is to improve the ability of teachers to engage students in effective civics education.
The standards for civics education in elementary school emphasize ideas of community as connected with greater civics concepts. Washington provides accessible sample questions for each grade level and relating to each of the four overarching civic standards. The elementary standards approach bureaucratic ideas through relatable lenses and links the focus on community ideals to the content of governing documents, such as the Washington and United States constitutions. From Kindergarten to second grade, the focus is on rules: what rules are, why they are important, how they differ between cultures, and what happens when one doesn’t follow them. That focus progresses to an understanding of laws in the later elementary grades. The fourth key standard for elementary school expects students to understand civic involvement and helpfully defines civic-mindedness as demonstrating concern for the well-being of one’s community. This explicit definition of civic involvement along with the progression of complexity within grade-level standards provides concrete guidance for educators teaching to these standards. The guidance for educators doesn’t seem to extend past the expression of sample questions for each standard and grade level, as no further resources are referenced aside from the C3 framework and the six Proven Practices.
Washington’s Middle school standards require that students build on what they have learned through more historical components and government analysis. There is more emphasis on analyzing and evaluating the impact of international agreements and the effectiveness of the United States government in achieving civic ideals. For example, one sample question asks students to consider “how the inclusion or exclusion of women, people of color, and other underrepresented communities in the electorate change the political focus of our government.” Others require students to consider on state and national levels whether all citizens’ needs are being met and voices being represented and if those who are not supported or heard have anything in common. This suggests a progressive approach to civics education that encourages students to critically assess the U.S. government and hypothesize about justice. Middle school standards also demonstrate a commitment to developing geographic consciousness through the focus on international, national, and statewide agreements, laws, and treaties. However, it is not entirely apparent as to how educators are expected to present this content. For example, in the civics standards, there is no direct mention of indigenous populations or the effect of legal treaties as robbing those communities of their native land.
Connections are established between these civics standards and the middle school standards for history, where a focus on treaties is elaborated on with lesson plans including focus on “Tribal Perspectives on American History in the Northwest” and imperatives to “evaluate the fairness, power structure, and consequences” of these treaties. These sections are written without explicit reference to the genocide brought upon indigenous peoples nor any connection to modern-day remedies for that historical injustice. Though there is expressed focus this time period and on the native people of Washington, these sections present indigenous people as though they exist only in the past rather than as a meaningful part of this nation’s present. The diverse populations whose needs are unmet are left up to the students to identify, and thus left to the educator’s discretion as to how they will present the content.
The same core themes are expanded on in the high school standards, though students are not given many imperatives to demonstrate their civic abilities. Almost all of the learning objectives at the high school level call for students to evaluate and analyze, with participatory objectives abstractly requiring students to “use appropriate deliberative processes in multiple settings” or “apply civic virtues and democratic principles when working with others.” The sample questions for the high school grade band are blended together without clarifying how to progress the complexity of the question through the grade levels. Furthermore, ninth and tenth grade is exempt from the first core standard that requires students to develop an analytical perspective on the founding documents of the U.S. and “apply” civic virtues and democratic principles when collaborating with others. This standard revolves vaguely around the idea of democratic principles, civic virtues, and “American” ideals and principles without guidance as to how educators can approach these complex concepts. One important sample question is identified as whether “key American ideals and principles [have] been evenly applied in the treaty relationships between tribes and the United States government” without resources for how educators can guide students to a comprehensive and accurate understanding of the fallacies that arrive with that question, such as the true nature of “key American ideals and principles” that formed the foundation for those very treaty relationships. These complexities are at the heart of civics education and should be addressed at every grade level with active imperatives for participation and demonstration.
Overall, Washington demonstrates an admirable attempt at comprehensive civics education that addresses the diversity and complexity of U.S. democracy. There is a degree of depth missing from the standards that attempt to approach deeply meaningful questions without sufficient guidance for educators. A fallacy of these standards is that “key ideals” remain undefined despite the fact that they are studied and referred to throughout the grade levels. The educational goals outlined in RCW 28A.150.210 set expectations for school districts to provide opportunities for all Washington students to develop certain knowledge and skills essential for functioning as active and engaged citizens. A focus on meeting these expectations could be more apparent in Washington’s civic standards, which are generally lacking in explanations and guidance as to how to approach the desired civic learning outcomes.