New York high schoolers should have the option to earn a “seal of civic readiness” as one way to complete their diploma requirements, members of a state education task force are suggesting to the Board of Regents.

The 33-member task force met between 2018 and 2019 and was charged with bolstering civics education in New York. 

Its recommendation, presented to the Regents on Monday at their monthly meeting, comes amid a growing focus on improving civics education across the United States. In New York City, for instance, officials launched the Civics For All initiative in the spring of 2018, which provides resources and programming for schools that are interested in expanding civics education. 

Across the state, officials are concerned with continuing low voter participation and misunderstanding of how government works.  Roughly 23% of eligible New York voters cast ballots in the November 2019 general election, according to a memo about the recommendations.

The task force, made up of educators and members of civic-focused organizations, wants students to earn the seal after demonstrating mastery in civics knowledge and participation in the civics process, such as investigating a real-world issue and finding solutions to it. Each school district would have to create a committee to assess students’ seal activities, which would also be subject to state approval. 

If implemented, students could earn a diploma, in part, by earning the seal as an option for the “plus 1” portion of a 4+1 Humanities pathway to graduation, which also requires completing Regents exams in math, English, science, and social studies.

“What that means in a real way, if you will, is that all students will have access to learning that will give them the civic knowledge, civic skills, civic dispositions, civic actions and experiences that will prepare them to be participants in democracy,” said DeNora Getachew, a member of the task force and executive director of the New York City branch of Generation Citizen, a group that focuses on getting more people involved in the civics process.

The dearth of civics education has been garnering more attention in recent years. In Rhode Island, students have sued their board of education for allegedly denying them an appropriate civics education. The students, whose case is still winding through the courts, are represented by attorney Michael Rebell. He’s the executive director of Columbia University’s Center for Educational Equity at Teachers College — and also chaired the New York civics task force. 

Other task force recommendations included calling on the state education department to define civic readiness. The members suggested the “ability to make a positive difference in the public life” and “the need for students to acquire fundamental civic knowledge, demonstrate a broad array of civic skills, exhibit civic mindsets and participate in substantial civic experiences.”

The group also wants to establish the ability to create a civics capstone project, where students would not only identify a specific problem facing them, their school, or their community, but also investigate solutions, take action, and then present their findings. The project could be completed on their own or as part of a group, could count toward their credit for the existing “Participation in Government” requirement, and help toward achieving the seal of civic readiness.

To effectively implement these recommendations, there must be state dollars dedicated to expanding professional development in these areas, Getachew said. And there does not seem to be an appetite to increase state dollars for anything at the moment, Getachew noted, as the state faces a massive budget shortfall.

“The key piece is making sure teachers feel equipped to do this, so I still feel like there needs to be resources allocated for teachers, especially for top five school districts,” Getachew said. 

There seemed to be broad support among the Regents for the recommendations. 

Regent Roger Tilles, who represents Long Island, and at-large Regent Wade S. Norwood said they’d have to carefully navigate these changes with the board’s major discussion about overhauling diploma requirements and the 4+1 pathway altogether. 

“We might blow up 4+1, and you need to give us a framework for no matter what brave new world we wind into,” Norwood told state education employees who are facilitating the civics process. 

State education officials plan to gather feedback on these recommendations before returning to the Regents in the spring for a final vote.