by Clement Doucette
Senior Elizabeth Cautela is dedicated to politics.
Once every two months, she commutes to the Massachusetts Department of Education in Medford to join her fellow students on the State Student Advisory Council. Her lengthy journey to the headquarters takes over an hour and involves a change of trains. For Cautela, maintaining her position on the council is worth the commute.
The student arm of the Massachusetts Department of Education, the State Student Advisory Council discusses hot-button topics in education and school policy. These students have a unique opportunity to cast light on education issues from across the state; only Massachusetts affords students the opportunity to participate in education policy making and a voice at the Department of Education.
“We have a lot of power,” said Cautela. “Though we can’t make legislation, we can push legislators to do what we want them to do.”
One student, Hannah, even misses up to sixty days of school per year to serve on the board of the Department of Education as a voting member.
Over the past year, Cautela and her fellow students have used this power to push an important issue through the legislature; mandatory civics education.
For years, Massachusetts was one of only seven states that did not mandate civics as a graduation requirement. In April, the Massachusetts State Legislature voted to pass a bipartisan bill mandating comprehensive, hands-on civics education in schools at the eighth grade level. The bill, which will first impact the class of 2022, originated when students from the Cambridge Rindge and Latin School, Worcester South Community High School, and others presented the issue to their local legislators. Eventually, it was brought to the attention of the Department of Education and the State Student Advisory Council.
“When we go to the state council, we spend our day there divided into different tasks,” said Cautela. “One of the days we spent the entire day [focused] on civics education with a woman and a man who work for the department. They came in, and they wanted us to give feedback on the framework that they had made up for their new curriculum.”
Student input is one of the most important roles of the State Student Advisory Council. While the council does not have much of a say in crafting education policy itself, its members serve as a channel for the concerns of Massachusetts students to be heard at the Department of Education.
Back at Hudson High School, Cautela has shared the proposals from the Department of Education with friends and teachers. Reception to the new curriculum has generally been positive.
Freshman history teacher Pam Porter has seen the new curriculum as a positive change. While the standards for the curriculum have not yet been officially released, she is optimistic that the requirements would benefit the school history curriculum.
“We’re not quite sure where the civics portion will go,” said Porter. “Potentially, it will be joined with the American Revolution because you really want to keep those together. Maybe that will free us up in some ways to bring in a lot more content.”
Currently, Hudson High School teaches the history of early democracy and the American Revolution to freshmen. Moving these topics to the eighth grade civics course might allow ninth grade history teachers to delve deeper into other topics.
“I’m kind of bummed to see that go,” said Porter. “On the other hand, I would really like to spend more time on reconstruction and race relations in America, which would be nice too.”
However, there have been concerns that the eighth grade is too young to effectively teach civics to students, since they are far too young to vote. Cautela, a registered voter, has expressed skepticism regarding the curriculum’s placement at the eighth grade level.
“I’m excited for eighth graders to get a stronger grasp on politics,” said Cautela. “I do wish a civics education became mandatory for high schoolers instead of eighth graders, because there are things from eighth grade that I don’t remember.”
Still, Porter remains optimistic that eighth graders will benefit from this education.
“I think the government is great to fit in any grade,” said Porter. “You could do it with fourth graders. You could do it with eighth graders. Maybe, in the upper grades, we could start implementing more of what they learned or doing some community and civic engagement related to their knowledge.”
While Cautela and Porter believe that the civics curriculum may help to build civic knowledge and mindfulness, sophomore history and AP US Government and Politics teacher Leah Vivirito expressed skepticism with the curriculum’s effectiveness. She does not feel that any current deficit in civics knowledge results from a lack of a curriculum.
“The public schools do their very best to provide as much information as they can, and it is up to the students to pick it up and take it in,” said Vivirito. “Do we have kids who lack knowledge on civics? We do. I’m not sure how much the curricula or that scope or sequence is going to change that.”
Still, Vivirito sees the placement of the civics curriculum in the eighth grade as a positive change.
“I think it will provide a good sort of structural foundation with regard to the simple structure of our federal government and understanding exactly what organs of government can do and how they operate,” said Vivirito. “I think it will benefit kids only if the history classes then build upon what they learned in the eighth grade and then drive it home over time.”
Currently, elements of civics education exist in Massachusetts’ history curriculum, but they are not integrated in a foundational way.
“The mentality was originally to not teach geography discreetly, or civics, or economics discreetly,” said Vivirito. “We weave them into the history classes. The way they are planning it right now is they are calling out civics separately in hopes of emphasizing that from the get go. That foundation will allow history teachers to carry it through.”
Porter also recognizes this benefit of the revised curriculum.
“If there is a course that is more dedicated to it, it might be more like what we had ten years ago when students were really getting a lot of civics,” said Porter. “And I think that could help students understand our government more and help turn out more of that passion for civic engagement.”
While uncertainty surrounds the rollout and effects of the new curriculum, it is certain that Cautela’s role on the State Student Advisory Council has taught her much about state government and policy making. Cautela is hopeful that the curriculum she helped approve will make her fellow students more civically minded.
“I am excited because I think this is a good step forward,” said Cautela. “We can create a more informed society.”
Student activism and an increase in youth political participation has also made Porter hopeful for the future of the curriculum. She has also recognized the importance of teachers and families in spreading civic mindfulness.
“I would love to see more civic mindfulness in general,” said Porter. “This year, with so many things happening in the community, kids have been really engaged. Kids were in the Parkland walkouts. Kids went to the school committee meetings and spoke about their teachers. Some kids went to the town meetings as well and were observing about the budget. I’d like to think we started that, but I’ll give your parents credit, too.”