Dr. Ariel Tichnor-Wagner to lead Massachusetts DESE Civics Education Evaluation

Massachusetts’ Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) has awarded a team led by Dr. Ariel Tichnor-Wagner, lecturer in BU Wheelock’s educational leadership and policy studies program, a contract to conduct research on and evaluation of the state of civics education in Massachusetts.

Dr. Tichnor-Wagner will be the study’s primary investigator and will be working with a research team at CIRCLE, part of the Jonathan M Tisch College of Civic Life at Tufts University. Dr. Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg, Director of CIRCLE, will serve as co-PI and Noorya Hayat as a researcher. Researchers with the Democratic Knowledge Project at Harvard University will be collaborators.

The researchers will focus on two primary objectives within this study. First, they will examine the current state of civics education in Massachusetts as it relates to the requirements set forth by the Massachusetts History and Social Science Framework (adopted by Massachusetts DESE in 2018) and Chapter 296 of the Acts of 2018, An Act to Promote and Enhance Civic Engagement (passed by the Massachusetts State Senate and House of Representatives).

Then, the researchers will evaluate the initial impact of the Civics Teaching and Learning Grant on educators’ capacity to teach civics. That grant was one of the first programs funded by the Civic Project Trust Fund established by Chapter 296 of the Acts of 2018.

This work is an important follow-up to 2018’s framework adoption and legislation. Those two policy measures were designed to increase emphasis on civics education across all grade levels in a time when it is often overshadowed by academic areas which are subject to state testing. Those measures expressed a vision for civics education that includes preparing students to assume responsibility for strengthening equality, justice, and liberty in the United States and abroad while making clear that civics education must involve inquiry-based pedagogy and social-emotional development.

Before they begin their investigation, Dr. Tichnor-Wagner and her team will develop a core set of quantitative and qualitative measures to track the progress of civics education implementation over time. They’ll then gather information via surveys of middle and high school social studies, civics, and government and elementary school teachers, as well as surveys of principals and district administrators. The team will also conduct individual interviews with teachers and administrators that focus on awareness, beliefs, and practices associated with civics education.

Speaking about her team’s approach to this evaluation, Dr. Tichnor-Wagner notes their emphasis on equity. “We’re examining systematic variation in civics knowledge and implementation based upon educators’ geographic location and the students whom they serve (i.e., economically disadvantaged, race/ethnicity, English language learners),” she shares.

“Rather than evaluating students’ civic dispositions, knowledge, and skills, this research focuses on the infrastructure, resources, and capacity of the broad ecosystem of educators and school systems that supports students’ civic learning.”

Much of this work will take place in the coming months. Pending funding, the evaluation may continue for another two years. Given that extension of scope, Dr. Tichnor-Wagner and her team would conduct annual follow-ups to their initial round of surveys and interviews, giving them the opportunity to analyze changes to civics over time. They would also seek to create case studies of four Massachusetts districts that received Civics Teaching and Learning Grants, purposefully selected for variation in grant-funded activities and geographic region in the state.