Civics Education, Inequities Facing Incarcerated Youth, and More: Takeaways from the 2019 NASBE Conference

By Emily Gasoi, Ward 1 Representative

On October 16, I headed off to Omaha, NE along with a small group of SBOE colleagues and staff for the National Association of State Boards of Education (NASBE) annual conference. NASBE is a membership organization that “develops, supports, and empowers citizen leaders on state boards of education to strengthen public education systems…” (see more about NASBE’s mission and purpose here).

I generally love the concentrated learning and networking that takes place at conferences, but this was my first time attending a gathering of state board members, and I had no idea what to expect. After three days packed with impressive keynote speakers, motivating panel presentations, inclusive decision-making sessions and ample time for unstructured discussion, I was not disappointed!

I am still processing everything I took in during my three days in Omaha, and there was far too much to share it all in this post, but I will attempt to seize on some common threads that ran through the talks and sessions I attended and share my key takeaways with you all:

Civics Education

One theme that ran through several of the convenings was the importance of providing students access to authentic, empowering civics education that leads directly to real-world opportunities. This resonated with some of the work I am leading on our Board with the Well-Rounded Education committee, which is conducting research to learn the degree to which DC schools are able to ensure students have access to non-tested subjects including arts, sciences, and social studies.

Some action- and thought-provoking points I took away from the panel on “Transforming Civics Education in an Era of Polarized Politics”:

• Asked to define what meaningful civics education entails, panelists generally panned the idea of using the US Citizenship test, which they deemed to be too narrow and inert, and instead noted that strong civics education both connects with and expands students’ lived experience. Several panelists, including one high school student, noted that authentic projects with real outcomes are more likely to engage students and lead them to feel more connected to the community and civically empowered to effect positive change.
• Panelists shared multiple models worth emulation:

• In Florida, the entire middle school curriculum is focused on civics education.
• Similarly, as of this year, in Massachusetts, the entire 8th-grade curriculum is dedicated to civics. In addition, state law now requires all middle and high schools to dedicate at least one semester to “’action civics’ – having students research and use local civic channels to solve problems in their community.”
• Illinois has also passed a statewide law requiring high schools to spend at least one semester on civics education. And in Chicago Public Schools, every high school has a “Student Voice Committee” designed to help students develop leadership and decision-making skills that will impact their school and home communities.

• Two related challenges panelists raised was how to effectively assess the quality of civics learning and how to make civics education a curricular priority without necessarily dragging it down with a narrowing accountability incentive.

Putting their civics convictions into practice, several states/territories, including Massachusetts, Maine, Maryland, and Guam sent student representatives to the conference. I attended a round table discussion at which student representatives described the process of applying and then either being appointed or elected to serve on their respective State Boards. Maryland and Massachusetts student representatives are elected by a statewide student council and have full voting rights. The DC SBOE chooses two student members from a pool of applicants each year. DC student representatives can vote, but their vote is merely recorded, not counted. I plan to reach out to the students I met to learn more about their respective systems and whether or not full student voting rights might be something the DC SBOE should pursue.

Our Responsibility to Incarcerated Youth:

The “Educating Incarcerate Youth” panel I attended also focused on the need to provide students being educated in detention centers with knowledge and skills that will help them navigate school, work, and life once they’re released. This was a different take on civics education, but the overlap was clear – whether they are learning in general education settings or detention centers, students need access to real-world learning. As one of the panelists, Hailly Korman of Bellwether Education Partners, aptly noted, “Many of you rightly focus on disrupting the school to prison pipeline. But we can’t let the students who are already in the system to feel that they’ve been thrown away. We need to create a prison-to-opportunity pipeline as well.”

Some takeaways from the “Educating Incarcerate Youth” panel:

• Panelists noted that, while more than 30,000 youth are incarcerated in the United States each year, there’s often little attention paid to the quality of education accessible to students in detention centers.
• Not surprisingly, therefore, schools within these centers are too often characterized by poor quality facilities, inadequate course offerings, and inadequate resources, meaning that these youth are disproportionately likely to “face an array of barriers to transitioning to a crime-free, productive adulthood.”
• The panelists urged us as state board members and other school system leaders to work toward greater coordination and communication across agencies, and to “be more aware and responsible for providing oversight” to ensure equality in terms of educational quality.
• To prevent students from entering the system, some panelists suggested “equity audits” for general education schools that would help principals assess the degree to which already vulnerable and marginalized youth are being disciplined and suspended.
• Bellwether shared a great simulation tool called Rigged that takes “players” through a series of decisions a student on probation might have to make in order to stay on track toward their high school graduation.
• Ultimately, the panelists emphasized that better metrics and more funding are most important points to advocate in order to address the problems facing educational settings within juvenile detention centers (like our general education sector, only more so!)

Providing participants with an example of what’s possible, 2019 Teacher of the Year, Rodney Robinson, gave a keynote talk about how he takes a student-centered approach to civics education, empowering his students– all of them African American boys assigned to a juvenile detention center school in Richmond, VA – to push for social change. With them, Robinson has explored the historical roots of the U.S. prison system, the ongoing effects of racial segregation, and voting rights.

Concluding Thoughts:

Several panelists and speakers discussed the narrowing effect that two decades of over-emphasizing test scores has had on civics, as well as other essential subjects. Acknowledging both the necessity and difficulty of creating conditions conducive to forging more holistic and, frankly, more 21st century-appropriate school systems, other panel and speaker topics included real talk from states attempting to shift to alternative assessment systems, the science of how trauma impacts children’s capacity to attend to their learning and how state leaders can best support learning that serves our most vulnerable students through policy, state board members from Kansas and Indiana sharing their ambitious and impressively effective constituent engagement strategies, and more.

Overall, I found this to be one of the most practical conferences I’ve attended. I came away with lots of connections and resources that I am fired up to share and put into practice over my next three years on the State Board.

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