As of Jan., 1 2022, Oregon was one of 11 states that did not require high school students to take a civics course to graduate. This will slowly change with the passing of Senate Bill 513, which goes into effect in 2025 and will require students to take at least one half credit of civics education to receive a high school diploma. The Bill passed with bipartisan support and aims to alleviate a loss of civic education and participation that was put on the back burner during the '90s to 2010s with the focus turning toward STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) education and testing to receive federal funds.
- Submitted by Amy Sabbadini
- Students participate in a mock congressional hearing with judges comprised of Oregon lawmakers and professors.
The result of this focus was a steady decline nationwide of knowledge regarding government functions and responsibility, although polls taken in 2020 showed a sharp increase in the population's understanding of constitutional protections and components that make up U.S. democracy. According to a study by Annenburg Public Policy Center in 2020, 51% of Americans could name the three branches of U.S. government, up from 39% just a year prior.
These numbers could be explained by the widespread protests that took place across the U.S. during 2020, or a hotly contested election, with the aftermath of the election showing that there is still a lack of understanding and trust in our democracy. Some believe beginning this education at an early age is the best way to find a solution.
"We want [civics] to be part of everything you do. Even if you're discussing something about science there's a civics aspect of science, a civics aspect of language studies. So we'd really like to see civics be integrated beyond just social studies classes," says Amy Sabbadini, regional program director of Classroom Law Project.
Classroom Law Project is an Oregon-based nonprofit that has worked extensively to promote participation and civic education in the Portland area and is looking to expand east of the Cascades as SB 513 rolls into effect.
"Our programs [provide] a template for how a teacher can take their class through the process of identifying a problem, coming to a policy solution through consensus building, and then involving stakeholders in the community and presenting their decision as a classroom," says Sabbadini.
Civics education in schools can be represented by debate teams and government education classes, but an importance on students recognizing their voices in a system appears to be the centerpiece of the educational goals. One strategy is to get students to realize their position in the school community.
"[We could] teach the town hall method of teaching simulation for students to role play so they can practice a point of view that maybe isn't their own. Develop a little empathy for other points of view or at least understand what they are, even if they fully disagree and work out the difficulty of solving problems...[the topic] could be something like school schedules or parking," Sabbadini explains.
From here students can have a space to voice opinions and role play through different viewpoints. Discussions can move toward issues regarding local concerns or even expand to national and global problems. The goal of this discourse is to open disagreements in a constructive way that doesn't lead to hostility or withdrawing from participation.
She says, "It's not a given that you get to keep democracy just because you say it's democracy. It requires people to actively vote and go beyond voting."
Students participate in a mock congressional hearing with judges comprised of Oregon lawmakers and professors.