By Trevor Ballantyne
Boston University Statehouse Program
This article was originally published in The MetroWest Daily News.
BOSTON – Hopkinton teachers are preparing to revamp major components of their social studies curriculum after Gov. Charlie Baker signed a law last week requiring civics-based instruction for all public school districts in the state.
Hopkinton Assistant School Superintendent Jennifer Parson said teachers look forward to the opportunity to improve their curriculum, even if it might require additional preparation.
“Maybe teachers are a little overwhelmed that they might have to turn their curriculum upside-down,” Parson said, “but they are very excited about the prospect of making sure our students are well informed and ready to participate in democracy.”
Earlier this year, The Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education issued new history and social studies curriculum frameworks for public schools. But the new education law requires teachers in the state to hone in on civics instruction.
In addition to classroom instruction, students will participate in a group-led civics project organized by their teachers, and will take part in a voter registration challenge when the law’s components take effect during the 2020-21 school year.
Hopkinton High School Assistant Principal Joshua Hanna, a former AP history teacher at Natick High School, welcomed the legislation. He said civics education is “one of the more empowering things a student can get from a history or social sciences program.”
Speaking on how his colleagues will prepare for curriculum changes, Hanna noted that the vast amount of information that teachers are tasked with teaching means some subjects will need to be cut.
“It is difficult to get as deep as you would like in all of the focus areas,” Hanna said. “So, what do we decide to cut? There are good arguments on all of the topics to say they are valuable, but I feel civics is that foundational understanding of what a student’s responsibilities are as a citizen.”
The emphasis of the civics curriculum is designed to promote analytical thinking and engagement around civics-based topics, and aims to prepare students “morally and intellectually, for the duties of citizenship,” text of the new legislation reads.
Baker sent a previous version of the bill back to state lawmakers with a request that certain elements of the curriculum, including the group-led civics project, be described as “nonpartisan.”
House Education Committee Chairwoman Rep. Alice Peisch, D-Wellesley, said the addition of the “nonpartisan” descriptor ultimately amounted to a “clarification,” and was not a major change to the bill.
“I think there was a little bit of concern that if it wasn’t clear about that then you might have a situation where some people would be promoting something that could be viewed as a partisan exercise,” Peisch says.
State Sen. Harriett L. Chandler, D-Worcester, who co-sponsored the bill, said she is not sure the governor’s clarification was necessary.
“I don’t know why he wanted to include that,” she said Thursday after a ceremonial signing of the bill in Worcester. “I would hope that he would not expect these to be partisan projects.”
Hanna said Hopkinton High teachers do not let partisan politics seep into civics instruction.
“That’s totally outside our realm,” he said. “Our teachers are so expert at framing lessons and prompts in a manner that is free of partisanship – it’s just not even something that comes up.”
Parson echoed her colleague’s thoughts, saying her district is taking their lead from education experts, not from politicians.
“Our role as educators is to look at what the experts in our field say,” Parson said. “We are taking our lead from the Department of Education and sources that are backed by research and vetted by experts.”
As a way to gauge the effectiveness of the new curriculum, the DESE is tasked with creating assessments for students. But officials are looking to go create a test that reflects the analytical components of understanding various democratic principals at the local, state, and federal level.
A spokeswoman for the department said officials recognize the need to go beyond just testing facts and an advisory committee has been formed to research what other states have done with similar curriculums.
“The assessment is in the very early stages of discussion,” the spokeswoman said, “and the department welcomes input.”
How much Hopkinton’s curriculum will change largely depend on what the assessment looks like and Parson said the town is looking forward to seeing what the state comes up with.
“We want our students to be critical thinkers,” Parson says, “but we are hoping for the type of assessment where students take information before them and draw conclusions to really create an argument by conducting inquiries and organizing information based on fact.”