California policies support student civic engagement

A September 2022 Annenberg Public Policy Center survey found the first drop in six years among adults who could identify all three branches of government, and declines among those who could name the First Amendment rights. An April 2023 report from the Learning Policy Institute, State Support for Civic Engagement, examines a growing number of states that are working to increase student civic knowledge and engagement through policy and practice.

“Despite the increasing interest in strengthening civics education, states continue to differ in their interpretation of what constitutes relevant and high-quality civic engagement among students. As of 2018, 42 states required students to take a course in civics and government, with eight of those states requiring a full year of civics and 19 states requiring a civics exam to graduate, often resembling the U.S. citizenship test,” states the report.

California is taking the lead in policies promoting civic engagement for students. It is one of the seven states (along with Arizona, Georgia, Nevada, New York, Ohio and Virginia) offering an opportunity for students to receive a seal on their diplomas that recognizes their civics knowledge and skills, and one of just three states (along with Massachusetts and Tennessee) that are funding initiatives at the school level that support and acknowledge a commitment to civic learning.

In 2020, California adopted criteria and guidance for local educational agencies to award a State Seal of Civic Engagement (SSCE) to students who meet the following five criteria:

  1. Be engaged in academic work in a productive way.
  2. Demonstrate a competent understanding of the U.S. and California constitutions; functions and governance of local governments; tribal government structures and organizations; the role of the citizen in a constitutional democracy; and democratic principles, concepts and processes.
  3. Participate in one or more informed civic engagement project(s) that address real-world problems and require students to identify and inquire into civic needs or problems, consider varied responses, take action and reflect on efforts.
  4. Demonstrate civic knowledge, skills and dispositions through self-reflection.
  5. Exhibit character traits that reflect civic-mindedness and a commitment to positively impact the classroom, school, community and/or society.

In the 2020–21 school year, the SSCE’s first year, “in which a global pandemic raged and students in California largely attended school in a hybrid or remote capacity — the state awarded a total of 5,359 SSCE insignias, roughly 1 percent of the state’s approximately 400,000 graduates,” according to the report. In its second year, the number of insignias requested nearly doubled, to 10,104, roughly 2 percent of the state’s graduates.

Legislators have left how to implement the seal to in regard to criteria 3 and 4 up to local control, and the report highlights some best practices happening in the state. One example is Anaheim Union School District’s California Democracy School initiative, which emphasizes civic learning through the practices of inquiry and investigation, service and civility — by designing districtwide guidance for a civic engagement project that aligned to SSCE criteria 3, 4 and 5.

At each Democracy School site, all students in a single grade participated in the project and teachers submitted descriptions of passing projects to the district’s SSCE leads. One such project featured a student interviewing community members about their reluctance to get COVID-19 vaccinations and proposed solutions. Anaheim Union SD also provided opt-in professional development to educators throughout the district to scale up the California Democracy School initiative.

Read the full report and see how other states compare to California:

For more on how specific districts are implementing civics education, read “A case for civics education” from the summer 2022 issue of CSBA’s magazine, California Schools: