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An Assessment of We the People...Project Citizen:
Promoting Citizenship in Classrooms and Communities

Executive Summary

Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs
Policy Research Project Report Number 129
Project Directed by Kenneth W. Tolo


Civic education, in its ideal form, seeks to engage students in their communities by teaching them the skills necessary to effectively participate in civil society. In a constitutional democracy, the importance of civic education cannot be overstated. Effective citizenship education that teaches adolescents how to participate and effect positive change within their communities is critical to the development of a lasting commitment to civic participation.

The middle school years are an especially crucial time to the development of civic roles and responsibilities. During these years, students are discovering their identities and their larger roles in their communities and in society as a whole. However, little attention has been aimed at promoting citizenship during these formative middle school years.

Recognizing the importance of civic education, especially in middle school, the Center for Civic Education (CCE), in collaboration with the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), developed We the People… Project Citizen, a national civic education program for middle school students. Project Citizen implementation in its present form began in the 1995-96 school year. In just three years, Project Citizen has blossomed into a national program with state coordinators in 45 states. An estimated 460 teachers have used or are using the Project Citizen text in over 1,000 classes with 28,000 students. All of this has been accomplished with minimal administrative and financial support, through the diligent work of CCE and a volunteer network of Project Citizen state coordinators and other program supporters.

Implementation and growth of Project Citizen varies dramatically across states, however, and several state coordinators report various obstacles to implementation. Few states have more than ten classes using the program each year. CCE recognized the need to gain a greater knowledge of implementation across the country as well as to identify the best practices for increasing the use of Project Citizen.

This desire for a better understanding of the programmatic development served as the starting point for this assessment of Project Citizen implementation. The first two chapters of this report provide the background for civic education and Project Citizen and set the national context. Chapters 3 through 9 examine in detail seven key areas of Project Citizen implementation and offer recommendations for maximizing implementation efforts in each of these areas. The final chapter then provides some overarching and long-term recommendations for building a strong framework to solidify and expand the use of Project Citizen nationally.

Key Findings

Following are key Project Citizen implementation findings and insights from our research. Chapters 3 through 9 provide programmatic recommendations addressing these findings.

State Administration

The greatest commonality throughout the volunteer network of Project Citizen state coordinators is their commitment to instilling in middle school students an understanding of community involvement and civic participation. Yet, given coordinators’ limited program resources, time, experience levels, and availability, the extent to which coordinators are able to fulfill the diverse roles and responsibilities CCE expects of them varies considerably across the nation. For example, coordinators affiliated with one or more education networks or holding full-time positions generally have access to greater logistical help and administrative support than do other coordinators.

Coordinators rate CCE very highly for its responsiveness in providing Project Citizen materials; in other areas of program need, they rate CCE from "adequate" to "good." There is wide agreement that the program needs more funding, yet few coordinators have fund-raising experience, and there is no consensus among coordinators about whose responsibility it is to raise funds. Coordinators also have diverse views about the future form of Project Citizen and the design and implementation of teacher training sessions.

Recruiting and Building Support Among Teachers and Administrators

Project Citizen is expanding in several states because of Project Citizen state coordinators’ innovative and dedicated recruitment of and outreach to teachers and school administrators. Four critical factors influence coordinators’ success in these areas: time availability, organizational assistance, funding, and experience. Coordinators’ approaches to decide which teachers and administrators to target relative to potential Project Citizen participation vary. These approaches are bottom-up or top-down (or a combination), depending on whether the focus on teachers is direct or indirect; they are statewide or region-specific (or a combination), depending on whether they build on local relationships to create a regional critical mass or encourage teacher and school participation in all parts of a state; and they vary in terms of the subject areas of the teachers targeted.

In describing Project Citizen to targeted teachers, effective coordinators use the same program characterizations reported by Project Citizen teachers, namely, that Project Citizen fosters knowledge of government, excites students, is easy to follow, gets students involved, has concrete results and is project driven, involves everyone, develops higher-order thinking skills, integrates disciplines and skills, and fosters teamwork. The representation of Project Citizen links to state or district standards and curriculum frameworks, the opportunity to use Project Citizen alone or as a supplement to existing curricula, and the value of state competition and simulated hearings also are important recruitment approaches. Effective general outreach to (as contrasted with targeted recruitment of) teachers is often the result of the distribution of free materials, the use of diverse communication techniques, the use of incentives, and the development of strong relationships with principals, curriculum directors, and teachers.

Teacher Training

Several Project Citizen state coordinators, despite their scarce resources and, in some instances, their own lack of training experience, have taken significant steps to ensure that teachers are trained to use Project Citizen. Since the 1995-96 school year, more than 1,400 teachers in 38 states have been trained. Training approaches vary widely, however; some are short (e.g., one hour) information sessions, while others provide comprehensive and substantive (e.g., three to six hours, or more) "how to" training sessions. With respect to both kinds, teacher follow-up is critical to an effective Project Citizen teacher network.

Training approaches include conference presentations, simulated Project Citizen activities, use of Project Citizen teachers as teacher trainers, and nontraditional classroom and conference methods (e.g., student-led discussions). Teachers are best served by training sessions that include a step-by-step review of the Project Citizen curriculum, the use of visual examples to demonstrate previous portfolio projects, an exposure to alternative methods of integrating Project Citizen into classrooms and curricula, and, where appropriate, hands-on opportunities. Barriers inhibiting effective training sessions include insufficient training for state coordinators, insufficient financial resources, untimely training sessions, insufficient technical assistance, unavailable lesson plans, and inadequate teacher foundations in civic education.

Teacher and Class Use

Project Citizen is sufficiently flexible to fit into many classroom situations. It can be used in classes covering diverse subject matter, in classes of various academic ability (e.g., gifted and talented, mixed ability, remedial, and special education), and in different grade levels (primarily sixth through eighth grades, but also as young as fifth grade and as old as twelfth grade).

Seven key challenges that Project Citizen teachers face are (1) how much time to dedicate to Project Citizen; (2) how to fit the program into state and local curricula and standards; (3) how to use Project Citizen materials; (4) how to implement the program in the classroom; (5) how to determine what financial support and resources are needed to complete Project Citizen; (6) how to involve parents in the program; and (7) how to choose the Project Citizen portfolio topic. These diverse challenges illustrate the extent to which teachers are largely on their own in determining exactly how Project Citizen is implemented in the classroom and the community.

Competitions

Project Citizen competitions at the local, regional, state, and national levels provide participating students an important learning experience, reward and recognize their achievements, promote greater visibility of and financial and political support for the program, and provide incentives to potential students and teachers for future use. Thus it is critical that competitions remain a central focus of Project Citizen for teachers and students. However, CCE and state coordinator recognition of and feedback to students participating in Project Citizen competitions, especially the national competition, has been inadequate.

In addition, many states face significant barriers that impede or prevent their students from actively participating in Project Citizen competitions, especially those at the state level. Most classes are unable to travel to the site of a state competition due to financial considerations, liability issues, or a lack of time; innovative approaches to overcoming this obstacle include having judges travel to the schools, having students present and defend their portfolios via live videoconference, and obtaining special grants for competition travel. Other barriers to increased competition participation include the scheduling requirements of state and district standardized tests and the associated preparation time, as well as the dislike of some teachers for the competitive aspects of Project Citizen; for example, by a considerable margin, teachers view competitions as having the lowest impact of Project Citizen elements on student learning.

Benefits to Students

Students and teachers like using Project Citizen and believe it helps students learn valuable skills and information. Indeed, 97 percent of the Project Citizen teachers surveyed state the program is a good way to teach civic education.

Nine key findings are that (1) students using Project Citizen believe they can make a difference in their communities; (2) students do make a difference in their communities through Project Citizen; (3) students and teachers believe Project Citizen helps students develop a greater understanding of public policy; (4) students and teachers believe Project Citizen helps students learn how their government works and develops student commitment to active citizenship and governance; (5) students and teachers believe Project Citizen involves students in their communities and helps students learn about specific community problems; (6) students and teachers believe Project Citizen encourages students to work in groups; (7) students and teachers believe Project Citizen teaches students important communication skills; (8) students and teachers believe Project Citizen teaches students important research skills; and, equally important, (9) students enjoy Project Citizen.

Financial and Political Support

Project Citizen lacks the strong, sustainable, and broad-based financial and political support it needs, especially within the states. Generating this support is primarily the responsibility of state coordinators; however, this is an extremely challenging task, given their need to raise supplemental funds, lobby the state legislature, organize and conduct teacher training sessions, recruit teachers, and set up competitions, all while essentially serving as volunteers. The respective roles and responsibilities of state coordinators, CCE, NCSL, Project Citizen Advisory Committees, and teachers are not always understood or appreciated among Project Citizen participants.

CCE’s focus on increasing federal support for Project Citizen is to help state coordinators reach the critical mass of state program activity necessary to demonstrate program success and effectiveness. Coordinators often are left to their own initiative and creativity in generating long-term support; this is being done now through direct or indirect state appropriations from state legislatures, the leadership of Project Citizen Advisory Committees, the demonstration of Project Citizen linkages to state curriculum standards, private industry or foundation grants, and in-kind support. But they continue to face substantial obstacles, including lack of legislative support for funding stand-alone programs like Project Citizen, gubernatorial line-item vetoes, competition from other civic education programs, the limited experience level of some state coordinators, and the relative newness of Project Citizen.

Future of Project Citizen

The next five to ten years are critical to expanding and solidifying Project Citizen implementation nationwide. To date, CCE and its volunteer network of state coordinators have done a strong job of sustaining and expanding the program given limited resources. However, the Project Citizen network has outgrown its current program infrastructure, and changes in administration and implementation must occur for the program to become nationally recognized.

CCE’s challenge over the next five years is to find ways of maximizing the efforts of its coordinators to ensure that Project Citizen matures from the pilot stage into full implementation in all 50 states and abroad. A daunting, but realistic, vision would see Project Citizen being used in most, if not all, congressional districts. Competitions would be held in all states, culminating in a national competition that featured simulated hearings. Strong bases of financial and political support for the program would exist both nationally and within states. A longer-term vision would feature Project Citizen as one of the cornerstones in a CCE national campaign to promote civic literacy and civic participation through the establishment of state and local requirements for K-12 education in civics and government.

To achieve this vision for Project Citizen, CCE must take the lead, working with NCSL, state coordinators, educators, state legislators, community and business leaders, and foundations, to develop an implementation framework that supports future programmatic activities more strategically, actively, and collaboratively. Such a framework would include, but not be limited to, the creation of a strategic plan and planning process; the specification of clear roles and responsibilities; the establishment of ongoing training opportunities for state coordinators; the creation and enhancement of communication networks at all levels of the Project Citizen network; the publicizing of Project Citizen success stories; and the support of research studying the impact of the program on student attitudes toward government and the political process.

The recommendations contained within this report are mutually reinforcing and must be taken collectively. The implementation of only a few of them will likely not have any lasting or significant effect on the growth and success of Project Citizen. The challenge facing CCE and its Project Citizen collaborators is to refine these recommendations in view of middle school civic education challenges and opportunities and to make a sustained and collective commitment to their implementation.


For copies of the full report, An Assessment of We the People...Project Citizen, visit the publications page of the LBJ School of Public Affairs