DemocracyReady NY

New from DemocracyReady NY

The Importance of Discussing Controversial Issues in the Classroom—Especially Today

In an assortment of states around the nation, legislatures have taken steps to limit or even ban the instruction and discussion of specific topics in K-12 classrooms. Attempts to inhibit discussion of controversial issues are inconsistent with good civic education as described by knowledgeable educators, both conservative and liberal.

While no such legislation has been enacted in New York, DemocracyReady NY recognizes that the trend itself is having a chilling effect on our teachers’ abilities to engage with controversial issues and teach students skills for civil classroom conversations. To help reverse this trend, we have issued a new white paper, The Importance of Discussing Controversial Issues in the Classroom—Especially Today, specifically endorsing and justifying instruction in controversial subjects.

This report offers recommended policy guidelines to support educators and help parents and students understand the importance of student discussions of controversial issues. It also shares resources from Paula McAvoy, Diana Hess, and other top experts in the field of civic education and addressing controversial subjects with students.

Read the full report here

Drawing on the white paper, the New York State School Boards Association, a member of DemocracyReady NY, has updated its model policy on teaching controversial issues to provide school boards throughout the state with tools for permitting and encouraging such classroom discussions in their schools.

Read NYSSBA's model policy here

Preparing All Students for Capable Civic Participation in a Democratic Society

A Statement on Civic Education in New York State

DemocracyReady NY is a statewide, nonpartisan, multigenerational coalition of organizations and individuals that works together to ensure that K-12 schools in New York State provide a comprehensive education that prepares all students to exercise their civic responsibilities. Our members include education stakeholders and educational and civic organizations from all parts of the state.

DemocracyReady NY is issuing this statement in response to recent discussions about how civics and history education should be taught in the classroom. Key topics in this dialogue include the role of deliberation on controversial issues and the challenge of teaching a full and accurate U.S. history. We are concerned that statements and positions that discourage proven practices of civic education, such as discussing current events and deliberating about public policy issues in an open classroom climate, undermine, rather than support, schools’ vital role in preparing students for capable, informed participation in a multiracial, democratic society. 

Schools have a critical role in preparing students to function productively as civic participants. Indeed, schools provide a rare institution in our highly polarized society where youth can interact with people from diverse backgrounds and with varied views on public and academic issues. There, they can engage with multiple perspectives in a setting that encourages rational discussion, and promotes constructive, public-spirited action. In schools, children also acquire the basic knowledge, critical thinking, participatory experiences, and values necessary for building and maintaining a democratic community. These educational opportunities should be enhanced, not constricted, if our democratic system is to be maintained. 

Specifically, we encourage a vision of civic education where youth can develop robust knowledge of history and governmental systems, as well as strong civic skills, including the ability to deliberate on public matters and to engage constructively in improving their communities and beyond. This vision must include teaching about difficult histories, engaging with potentially contentious conversations including, but not limited to issues of race and gender, wrestling with competing perspectives, and fostering students’ involvement in authentic civic spheres. These efforts will make for a stronger democracy.   

Over the past half century, civic education in schools throughout the nation has been neglected. Far too many students have been denied access to civic learning opportunities and many schools, particularly those that serve students in poverty, immigrants and students of color, have lacked the resources to provide a robust civic education. Many young people are ready for supportive entry into civic life, but not enough of them have been given this opportunity.

Fortunately, in New York State, many of our leaders have understood the dire implications of this neglect and have begun to take steps to turn the tide. The New York Court of Appeals, the highest court in our state, has proclaimed that the core purpose of education is to prepare students to “function productively as civic participants,” and that the state constitution guarantees all students a “meaningful opportunity” to obtain such an education. The New York State Board of Regents and the State Education Department have redefined the expected outcome of education in New York State in terms of ensuring that students are “college, career and civically ready.” They have also adopted a robust definition of “civic education,” which includes not only civic knowledge but also skills, experiences, and mindsets, and they are in the process of implementing a State Seal of Civic Readiness initiative that will recognize students who have excelled in civic preparation activities, including, but not limited to, course work and substantial capstone projects.

DemocracyReady NY supports the definition of “civic readiness” adopted by the Regents. It emphasizes “civic knowledge, civic skills, civic mindsets and civic experiences.” Included in the examples of civic readiness cited by the Regents are:

  • Viewing and analyzing history and current issues from multiple perspectives;
  • Knowing the impact of individual and collective histories in shaping contemporary issues;
  • Demonstrating a broad array of critical analytic, verbal, communication, media literacy and other skills;
  • Respecting the rights of others in discussions and classroom debates;
  • Participating in activities that focus on a classroom, school, community, state or national issue or problem;
  • Valuing equity, inclusivity, diversity, and fairness.

In order to meet the New York State definition of civic readiness outlined above, students must grapple with issues with which classmates might have reasonable differences of opinion, and about which they may encounter divergent perspectives for the first time. Through this process, students learn practical skills related to engaging with individuals holding differing opinions, as well as how to deal with real world policy challenges. We need to equip our educators with tools to shepherd their students through discussions of important historical and current social studies topics, including those about which there are multiple perspectives, recognizing the inherent role of engaging with diverse viewpoints in a democracy. Furthermore, meaningful discussion of contentious issues stems from and fosters knowledge about history, government, philosophy, and other areas of a liberal arts education and leads to informed civic participation.

The members of DemocracyReady NY do not express these views from a vacuum. We do this work. We are educators, youth development specialists, policymakers, researchers, youth leaders, and others who advance this vision of a robust civic education in our practice. We see firsthand the positive impact it has on young people. Stemming from our experiences, we produced a four-part webinar series in spring, 2021, that welcomed a wide audience of educators and other participants to explore critical components of civic learning opportunities. We focused on the timely topics of media literacy, discussion of controversial issues, youth civic action, and ultimately, the political levers that would need to be moved so to ensure these opportunities for all New York youth. The dialogue within the webinars and in our coalition in general recognizes that civic education needs to be multifaceted, meaningful, and accessible for all.          

We urge all educators, all policymakers—and, indeed, all New Yorkers—to support these important, realizable principles and to do everything they can to ensure that our schools adhere to these precepts in educating our students and preparing them for lifelong participation in a thriving, multicultural, democratic culture.

Publications New York State Map

New Report on Media Literacy from DemocracyReady NY

Developing Digital Citizens: Media Literacy Education for All Students, a new report from DemocracyReady NY, calls for immediate and decisive steps to require media literacy education in schools throughout New York State. Stressing that “the internet has become the new public square,” it asserts that “to be democracy ready, all students must be media literate.” The report defines what media literacy encompasses in an increasingly digital age, and establishes a clear framework to ensure that all students become media literate civic participants.

 

Please click here to download full report.

Mission & Goals New York State Map

Mission

DemocracyReady NY is a statewide, nonpartisan, intergenerational coalition of organizations and individuals committed to preparing all students for civic participation.

Goals

  • Raise awareness about all students’ right under the New York state constitution to develop the knowledge, skills, and dispositions they need in order to engage, today and in the future, as effective civic participants;
  • Strengthen state education policy, practice, and investment with the goal of supporting that right; and
  • Mobilize the expertise of youth leaders, parents, educators, researchers, advocates, attorneys, youth-development specialists, and philanthropy to work collectively toward these goals.

Big Picture New York State Map

National Civic Crisis

  • The last several years have highlighted some troubling developments in our national politics: an increasingly polarized electorate, lack of focus on substantive policy, and widespread acceptance of one-sided, erroneous information.

  • Other disturbing trends have existed for decades. A low proportion of eligible voters actually go to the polls; the number of citizens who participate in local community activities has dramatically declined; and more Americans than ever are neglecting basic civic responsibilities, like jury service.

  • These worrisome trends raise serious questions about how well schools are carrying out one of their most critical responsibilities—to prepare a new generation that is capable of safeguarding our democracy and stewarding our nation toward a greater realization of its democratic values—even though the U.S. Supreme Court and 32 state supreme courts have explicitly stated that preparation for capable citizenship is a primary purpose of education.

New York State Constitutional Right Not Realized

  • The New York State constitution guarantees every student in the state the right to education defined in terms of preparation for civic participation.

  • Far too many schools, particularly schools that serve students in poverty and Black and brown students, are ill equipped to provide this type of education and fulfill this critical guarantee.

  • If schools are not preparing students for active civic engagement, then they are not meeting their obligations under the law.

  • Many experienced educators, civic education experts, and democratic engagement advocates are surprised to learn this. Even fewer students and families have access to this important information.

New York Can Lead the Way

  • Equipped with the necessary knowledge, skills, experiences, and values, young people recognize their civic roles and exercise their civic powers to work for meaningful social change.

  • Through a concerted effort by DemocracyReady NY and others who care deeply about civic preparation and engagement, New York can lead the way in ensuring that, from pre-K through 12th grade, schools prepare young people to strengthen our democracy.

About the Coalition New York State Map

Conveners

  • The DemocracyReady NY Coalition is convened by the Center for Educational Equity (CEE), a policy and research center, at Teachers College, Columbia University. CEE’s expertise and experience in students’ rights, education policy, civic participation, and public engagement position it to lead the Coalition.

  • Founded in 2005 by educational law scholar Michael A. Rebell, who successfully litigated the landmark educational-rights lawsuit, CFE v. State of New York, the Center for Educational Equity champions the right of children nationwide to a meaningful opportunity to graduate from high school prepared for college, careers, and civic participation. It works to define and secure the resources, supports, and services necessary to guarantee this right to all children, particularly children in poverty and Black and Brown children.

  • CEE Executive Director Michael Rebell is the author of the acclaimed 2018 book Flunking Democracy: Schools, Courts, and Civic Participation.

  • On November 29, 2018, Rebell filed a federal class action suit to establish a right under the U.S. Constitution to an adequate education to prepare young people for full civic participation. Read more about the lawsuit.

 

Members

  • DemocracyReady NY Coalition partners are educators, researchers, academics, students, parents, advocates, youth-development specialists, legal experts, and civic leaders.  We strive to be geographically representative, politically inclusive, and racially and socioeconomically diverse.

  • Under the coalition’s banner, a broad and diverse group work together to strengthen the state’s education policy and practice to ensure all New York’s schools are fully equipped and supported to meet their students’ civic-learning needs.

 

Organizations 

Alliance for Quality Education

Angelo Del Toro Puerto Rican/Hispanic Youth Leadership Institute

Capital Region Institute for Human Rights

Center for Educational Equity, Teachers College, Columbia University

Center for News Literacy, Stony Brook University School of Journalism 

Citizens’ Committee for Children

Citizens Union

Common Cause New York

Democracy Prep Public Schools

Facing History and Ourselves

Generation Citizen

Inquiring Minds 

League of Women Voters of New York City

League of Women Voters New York State

Mikva Challenge

New York State Council for the Social Studies

New York State Council of School Superintendents

New York State Grange

New York State Parent Teachers Association

New York State Rural Schools Association

New York State School Boards Association

New York State United Teachers

New York Youth Civics Initiative

Next Generation Politics

Project Look Sharp

School Library Systems Association of New York State 

The Education Trust - New York

United Federation of Teachers

Westchester Putnam School Boards Association

Women Creating Change (WCC)

 

Individuals

Jason Clark, Metropolitan Black Bar Association

Shira Epstein, The City College of New York

Brett Levy, University at Albany, SUNY

Ioana Literat, Teachers College, Columbia University

Yolanda Sealey-Ruiz, Teachers College, Columbia University

Laura Smith, Teachers College, Columbia University

Jenny Osowski, Otselic Valley Central School

Gail Ehrlich, NYC DOE 

Gail Sider, Pelham Public Schools

John McNally, Teachers College, Columbia University 

Youth Members

  • DemocracyReady NY includes and honors the voices and leadership of young people in its work. Its youth members —11th and 12th graders from diverse regions across the state—join forces with the other Coalition individuals and organizations to ensure that New York students are fully prepared to participate in the civic activities and decision-making that affect them and their peers, as well as their families, their communities, and our broader society.

Events New York State Map

Contact New York State Map

For more information or to help support the DemocracyReady NY Coalition, please contact the Center for Educational Equity at equity@tc.columbia.edu or visit centerforeducationalequity.org.

CEE Leadership

Michael A. Rebell, Executive Director and Professor of Law and Educational Practice

Jessica R. Wolff, Director of Policy and Research

 

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