ERIC Identifier: ED429929
Publication Date: 1999-05-00
Author: Vontz, Thomas S. - Nixon, William A.
Clearinghouse for Social Studies/Social Science Education Bloomington IN.
Issue-Centered Civic Education in Middle Schools. ERIC Digest.
There is a broad consensus among social studies educators that the core
mission of a social studies curriculum is education for democratic citizenship.
Of course, there is an appropriate place for civic education at every level of
learning. It is increasingly recognized, however, that the middle school years
are an important time in the development of civic roles and responsibilities.
Yet there is a general lack of institutionalized civic education aimed at
promoting democratic citizenship during the middle school years (Policy Research
Project 1998, xv & 16). Educators, policymakers, parents, and concerned
members of the community need to recognize civic education in middle school as a
prime concern, and issue-centered education as an effective way to respond to
ISSUE-CENTERED EDUCATION: THE PROS AND CONS
there is a commitment to providing a foundation in civic education, the question
remains: how should citizenship be taught to middle school students? On this
point there has been considerable debate for several decades. James P. Shaver
(1992, 95) has broken down the argument into two perennial questions: (1) is the
teaching of content culled from history and the social sciences, appropriately
tailored for young minds, adequate citizenship education in and of itself? and
(2) should students first master a core body of information and concepts before
being asked to consider the issues that face adult citizens, or will the
learning of information and concepts take place more effectively in the context
of confronting issues? Educators who answer "no" to the first question, and who
support learning in the context of confronting problems, have turned to the
issue- or problem-centered approach to civic education.
While several approaches to issue-centered civic education have been
advanced, most proponents agree on some common principles. Broadly speaking,
issue-centered education examines social questions. The method can be used
within either discipline-based or interdisciplinary curricula. Further, it seeks
to examine problems and dilemmas confronting citizens. At the core of
issue-centered education are reflective questions that may be answered
variously, and that emphasize thoughtfulness and depth. In the process of
examining reflective questions and reaching a decision, there should be an
assessment of evidence, competing values, and alternative outcomes. At its best,
issue-centered civic education promises a high level of integrated learning and
student involvement in the learning process.
Despite the efforts of its advocates, the issue-centered approach has failed
to gain wide acceptance. There are many factors that account for this, but three
pointed criticisms have been made that are worth considering. First, some
teachers, parents, and community groups have expressed reservation about the
emphasis on potentially controversial problems at the heart of the
issue-centered approach. While examining issues of public policy is central to
citizenship, there is concern that an unthinking "controversy-is-good-per-se"
attitude can create an unnecessary adversarial climate (Shaver 1992, 99).
Another reservation about the issue-centered approach comes from proponents
of a content-based civic education. Because an issue-centered approach requires
a significant allocation of scarce classroom resources and extra effort by
teachers, it effectively reduces the time that can be spent on content coverage.
This factor can make the issue-centered approach unattractive to teachers who
are committed to exposing students to a broad content curriculum. While most
teachers are willing to trade breadth of knowledge for a greater depth of
understanding, there is the concern that by adopting an issue-centered approach,
content will be sacrificed to the extent that students will lack the knowledge
base that is a prerequisite for an informed examination of policy problems.
Finally, some doubts have been raised about the methodology of issue-centered
education. Many educators believe that the structure provided by the framework
of an established discipline is crucial to teaching and learning. Here, the
concern is that the issue-centered approach, with its emphasis on
interdisciplinary subject matter and process over content, lacks the conceptual
structure needed to facilitate achievement of content standards.
The criticisms of issue-centered civic education are valid. But if teachers
want to prepare students for effective and responsible democratic citizenship,
they must challenge students to confront issues of public policy in the
classroom (Massialas 1989, 173). The challenge is how to take advantage of the
benefits of issue-centered civic education without sacrificing student
achievement of content standards in the teaching and learning of
civics/government. "We the People...Project Citizen" is a program that responds
effectively to the challenges raised by critics of issue-centered education.
AN EXEMPLARY ISSUE-CENTERED CIVIC EDUCATION
Educators committed to issue-centered civic education in the middle
schools need to become acquainted with "We the People...Project Citizen,"
developed and sponsored by the Center for Civic Education. Launched in
California in 1992 and expanded to national usage in 1995, "Project Citizen" is
a civic education program created specifically for middle school students which
involves them in the civic life of their community. The program combines active
learning in both classrooms and communities with a team-based project activity
that builds a sense of community and a deep understanding of public policy.
Since becoming a national program in 1995, "Project Citizen" has been
implemented in 38 states and is likely to expand into all 50 states.
The focal points of the program are teaching students to monitor and
influence public policy and to encourage civic participation among students,
their parents, and other members of the community. Students are asked to step
outside of the classroom and examine real problems in their schools or
communities (e.g., drug abuse, pollution, and graffiti); analyze possible
solutions; create an action plan; and finally, present their findings in a
public forum. The project has three overall goals: (1) to provide the knowledge
and skills for effective participation in civic and political life; (2) to
provide practical experience designed to foster a sense of competence and
efficacy; and (3) to develop an understanding of the importance of citizen
participation. Overall, "Project Citizen" gives 10-to-15-year-olds the
opportunity to participate in civil society and to practice critical thinking,
dialogue and debate, negotiation, tolerance, decision-making, and civic action
(Policy Research Project 1998, 2 & 17).
"Project Citizen" responds to many of the criticisms that educators have
directed against issue-centered education. Instead of injecting problems into
the classrooms merely for the sake of creating controversy, the program
encourages students to examine important questions of policy that are relevant
to them and their communities. The format of "Project Citizen" helps ensure that
when difficult questions are raised, as they so often are in civic and political
life, the students think through the issues while remaining respectful of
differences of opinion and other points of view. Moreover, "Project Citizen" is
particularly well-suited to effectively complement a well-structured,
content-based civic education curriculum, giving students the opportunity to put
the ideas they have learned in the classroom into practice. Finally, while
"Project Citizen" is a flexible program, it is also an outstanding example of an
issue-centered approach that fits within the larger framework of civic education
for democracy, with all the benefits that working within that structural
AN EVALUATION OF "WE THE PEOPLE...PROJECT CITIZEN"
September 1997, a research team led by Professor Kenneth Tolo conducted a
comprehensive, eight-month study of " Project Citizen" at the Lyndon B. Johnson
School of Public Affairs of the University of Texas at Austin. The research team
published a report of its findings in 1998. The key findings of the report were:
* students using "Project Citizen" believe they can--and do--make a
difference in their communities;
* students and teachers believe that "Project Citizen" helps students develop
a greater understanding of public policy, helps students learn how their
government works, develops student commitment to active citizenship and
governance, involves students in their communities, and helps students learn
about specific community problems;
* students and teachers believe "Project Citizen" teaches students important
communication and research skills; and
* students enjoy "Project Citizen" (Policy Research Project 1998, xviii).
Perhaps as important as these points is that "Project Citizen," a flexible
program, can fit into many classroom settings. It can be used successfully in
classes covering diverse subject matter and in classes of varying academic
ability, including those with gifted and talented students and students of mixed
ability. "Project Citizen" is used primarily in sixth through eighth grades, but
also with students as young as fifth grade and as old as twelfth grade (Policy
Research Project 1998, xvii). For more information about "Project Citizen,"
contact the Center for Civic Education, 5146 Douglas Fir Road, Calabasas, CA
91302-1467; telephone (800) 350-4223; FAX (818) 591-9330; World Wide Web
REFERENCES AND ERIC RESOURCES
Evans, Ronald W. "A Dream
Unrealized: A Brief Look at the History of Issue-Centered Approaches." SOCIAL
STUDIES 80 (September-October 1989): 178-184. EJ 403 153.
Evans, Ronald W., and David Warren Saxe, Eds. HANDBOOK OF TEACHING SOCIAL
ISSUES. NCSS BULLETIN 93. Washington, DC: National Council for the Social
Studies, 1996. ED 410 141.
Gross, Richard E. "Reasons for the Limited Acceptance of the Problems
Approach." SOCIAL STUDIES 80 (September-October 1989): 185-186. EJ 403 154.
Massialas, Byron G. "The Inevitability of Issue-Centered Discourse in the
Classroom." SOCIAL STUDIES 80 (September-October 1989): 173-175. EJ 403 151.
Policy Research Project Report. AN ASSESSMENT OF WE THE PEOPLE...PROJECT
CITIZEN: PROMOTING CITIZENSHIP IN CLASSROOMS AND COMMUNITIES. Austin, Texas:
Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs Policy Research Project Report Number
Rossi, John Allen. THE PRACTICE OF IN-DEPTH STUDY IN AN ISSUES-ORIENTED
SOCIAL STUDIES CLASSROOM. Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the National
Council for the Social Studies, November 18, 1994. ED 380 389.
Shaver, James P. "Rationales for Issues-Centered Social Studies Education."
SOCIAL STUDIES 83 (May-June 1992): 95-99. EJ 458 397.