Ask the Experts: Is Educating for American Democracy Realistic in Today’s Climate?

A major new, national K-12 education initiative was launched a few weeks ago that is worth being aware of. Educating for American Democracy (EAD) describes itself as “an unprecedented effort that convened a diverse and cross-ideological group of scholars and educators to create a Roadmap to Educating for American Democracy—guidance and an inquiry framework that states, local school districts, and educators can use to transform teaching of history and civics to meet the needs of a diverse 21st century K-12 student body.” 

I had a chance to check in with three of the project’s Steering Committee Members, people who invested a significant amount of effort into developing this new inquiry-based framework and whose expertise in America’s Constitutional republic makes them some of the leading experts when it comes to civics education. Here’s what Tim Bailey (Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History), David Bobb (Bill of Rights Institute) and Adam Seagrave (Arizona State University) had to say about the new EAD effort:

  1. The EAD project is focused on teaching history and civics education in a robust manner across the country. Do you think it has the right content and approach to make this possible?

Tim Bailey: One of the most important aspects of EAD was its conscious effort to make this initiative useful on both the policy and practice level. Experience with other education initiatives has shown that top down initiatives are going to get substantial pushback and theoretical models without practical application don’t really change much. I think that this interdisciplinary approach combines a well thought way to ensure that strong civics and history teaching is primed for success on a system wide scale while also providing teachers the tools that they need for practical classroom application.  

David Bobb: The Roadmap’s approach is inquiry, and its content is strong. The combination of these makes for a product that can be a useful tool for teachers. It’s early, so we don’t know how teachers will respond to the Roadmap, but I think many teachers will appreciate the inquiry mode throughout and the five design challenges, which call out curricular conundrums—like how to balance ongoing disagreement over self-government with the need for shared institutions. The Roadmap will be successful only if it does not become just “one more thing” teachers have to incorporate into their lesson planning. The Roadmap’s biggest strength is that it is a great framework for asking the right questions.

Adam Seagrave: Absolutely. The EAD Roadmap and supporting resources have been the product of an incredibly robust and diverse collaboration. The project has been the result of the coordinated work of more than 300 scholars and educators with different specialties and from across the ideological spectrum. In terms of content, it is thorough and balanced. In terms of approach, it is conducive to deep understanding. Our decision to create a framework of questions to guide inquiry-based learning rather than a laundry list of answers or a full curriculum will, I believe, be crucial to the success of the EAD project. 

  1. As a member of the EAD’s Steering Committee, what key contributions do you think you made to the program’s direction and content?

Tim Bailey: I believe that my role on this initiative was to provide some insight into the practical aspects of integrating history and civics education on the classroom level. As a former elementary teacher I was also very interested in making sure that the initiative was being developed to address K-12 needs. On a larger scale, I saw my role as speaking to the fact that this initiative needed to address history and civics education as a national need. Not liberal, not conservative but American. I am very pleased with the concentrated effort to make EAD applicable regardless of ideology.  

David Bobb: In serving on the Steering Committee, as well as the Political Science and Civics Task Force and a couple other committees, I sought to ensure that we were keeping the teachers’ perspective in mind. Curriculum frameworks created with a top-down mentality often miss the mark by a mile. They don’t help teachers and they don’t help students. This framework has the chance for success because all of the participants in the project with whom I worked sought to make the content strong. Despite lots of disagreement among participants, it’s not watered down.

Adam Seagrave: As an intellectually conservative scholar of American political thought and the history of political philosophy, I contributed to the project’s treatment of questions and concepts related to American political principles as they emerged in the Revolutionary and Founding Eras. In addition to this broad contribution, I helped to direct the contribution of the Political Science Task Force to the overall project. I also claim primary responsibility for the insertion of the word “American” in the project title.  

  1. With so many debates happening in our country now, do you think a cross-partisan effort such as this one should bring people hope for a more educated and engaged citizenry?

Tim Bailey: I am very encouraged by how this effort has galvanized people across the political spectrum. The importance of teaching our children their civic rights and responsibilities through studying the history of our country has been recognized as foundationally important to the health of our republic. Many people have recognized that it is imperative that we address that need. We may disagree on some of the details, and even that system of disagreement and compromise is a basic founding principle of our nation, but this initiative’s focus on the core ideals of our country is why it has garnered support from across the political spectrum. I believe that this is a great start. If people continue to talk and implement changes that build on this work then yes, I believe that we can educate a much more civically engaged and historically literate citizenry.  

David Bobb: I think of this effort not so much as cross-partisan as cross-ideological. If civics is partisan, it’s not civics. If civics is cross-ideological, then it has a chance to be owned by everyone. If we have progressive civics and conservative civics and libertarian civics, then we have the same polarization in civic learning that we do in politics. Each group will just go to their corners and punch up the civics and history that confirms their priors. That’s not real progress, however, just status quo. If the Roadmap is going to have lasting impact, it will come only with a deeply held commitment—the kind that guided its creation—to a framework of challenging questions and answers that give all Americans a common way to manage disagreements. If that seems like a low bar, it’s not, because if we get to that place of understanding, not conformity, that’s where there is real hope for America’s future.

Adam Seagrave: I do think our cross-partisan effort to improve American civic education should inspire hope for a more educated and engaged citizenry. Our longstanding civic education deficit has resulted at least partly from the partisan polarization that has paralyzed our country for much of the last half century. Fundamental disagreements over how to teach American civics have resulted in a widespread avoidance of the subject, from the national level all the way down to the individual classroom. The EAD project showed that we can still have meaningful and productive conversations about American history and civics across partisan divides. By accomplishing this within our team and reflecting this accomplishment throughout the EAD materials, we paved the way for others to follow in the classroom, in schools, districts, states, and our nation as a whole.

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