Loudon County and Lenoir City school system leaders are welcoming reforms in civics education.
Both directors say the changes, which alter the way students are assessed, will help students learn and make the curriculum more pragmatic.
As part of a law passed in the Tennessee General Assembly last year, school districts will assess students' knowledge on government and citizenship at least once in grades 4-8 and at least once in grades 9-12. Students will apply civics lessons from the classroom to "real world" projects.
Though the change is a major departure from years past, Loudon County Director of Schools Jason Vance said he believes his district has been implementing such a curriculum long before the mandate. Vance noted that all high school students must complete a senior project before graduation.
"It really is a culminating process of some of the work they've had kindergarten through 12th grade, and they have to do research on a specific project that is of interest to them in the community and devote a certain amount of hours," he said. "They do a project and have to present that project orally, and a group of judges will review it and approve it or not."
Vance said civics education is also stressed at the elementary and middle school levels.
"We feel like we've been trying to make a transition to more real-life situational type things as far as kids' writing assignments and even math assignments that we would have them do, civic assignments through science and social studies," he said. "I feel like some of the projects that we have been asking them to interact with us on help them appreciate some of the real-life situations we see going on in our society today.
"It would not be uncommon to see a group of teachers at the middle school level work on a specific project and, say in a month's time, we will expect a kid to have this project completed," Vance said. "They may ask a kid to research just any activity that might be civic minded to help the community, and, of course, they'll have a writing assignment and reading assignments."
In a report by the state comptroller's office, civics courses in Tennessee are generally interwoven into social studies in elementary and middle school grades. Three credits in social studies, including one-half credit in U.S. government, are required for high school students to graduate.
The new civics assessments will be developed and implemented by individual school districts and are required to be "project-based," which differs from the multiple choice format that dominates most standardized testing. Students work to develop solutions that could actually be used to address the issues they are studying.
An example of a project-based approach to learning is Project Citizen, a program some Tennessee schools already use. In Project Citizen, students work together to identify problems in their communities, research those problems, consider possible alternatives, develop solutions in the form of public policies and petition local or state authorities to adopt those policies.
It is the first time the state has required any type of assessment for civics education.
Though Lenoir City Schools is still examining its approach to the mandate, Superintendent Jeanne Barker said she believes the change will help students better understand the subject.
"I have been involved in those types of projects before with students. It is very healthy. It is a great way to get them involved, and it's also letting them apply those skills and problem solve," Barker said. "I have had students partner with business and community organizations and have completed community service projects with them as part of a civics-focused project. I'm sure that will be part of what we will look at as we plan what is best for our students."
"I think it can only help and promote what we're currently doing," he said.
Barker noted a legislative proposal reforming social studies curriculum, saying she believed the change would also help students. The proposal would change the history curriculum so that courses would be offered in sequence instead of broken into three different grade years.
"That way when students graduate they are getting closer to voting age and then they will have a better understanding of not only our history but also civics and government and be better prepared to have civic duties fulfilled in voting and those kinds of things," Barker said.