Bernstein Family Foundation, a major proponent of American democracy, is proud to provide program support to iCivics, a non-profit civic education organization founded by Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. For the past year and a half, it has been in the hands of Executive Director, Louise Dube, a seasoned veteran of the law and education fields. In order to better understand the organization’s venerable mission and vision, I spoke with Louise to gain her insight.
Can you tell me a bit about your background and path to assuming this position as Executive Director.
I started out as a lawyer in the criminal justice field. In the 1990’s, I was a co-founder of an alternative-to-incarceration program called CASES in New York City. We argued for the release of youthful offenders to our custody as an alternative to imprisonment and built a mentoring program. We were one of the first programs that argued for impact investing from government funds. Our mentoring program originally focused on manual skills training, basically training the kids for construction work. The economy was really shifting at the time, so we decided to build an alternative school that came accredited; these kids worked toward a GED. I saw the power of education through this program and decided to pursue my career in education.
That time marked the birth of the education technology movement, and I went in on the for-profit side. I had a 20-year career doing educational technology work at the edge of innovation where I built and sold 3 companies that were designed to facilitate literacy and STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) skills. After all of that, I decided to go back to what I really firmly believed in, what I wanted to do the whole time, which was to do non-profit work in the field of youth development & education. After working at WGBH, I got the extraordinary opportunity to run iCivics.
How would you characterize your vision for iCivics as you steer it into a new direction?
What matters most is that kids graduate being able to think for themselves, to understand how the world works, how politics and the government is relevant to their lives, and get engaged in this process. As Justice O’Connor said, we need to reach every kid. We have 3 million kids engaged with iCivics, but we need 10 million.
We have to make sure teachers make full use our resources. We have a range of instructional materials that they can draw from including lesson plans and projects for students. We will be developing interactive experiences leveraging social media to build media literacy, we want to get kids and teachers to respond together. This means a lot more professional development for educators.
We really need to be taken seriously as a discipline because social studies is not getting the time in the classroom it deserves. At the same time, some leaders in education are recognizing that our kids don’t only need to answer bubble tests, they actually have to think to become the citizens and workers we need. It’s not that civic education is the only way you can do that, it’s that civic education is really designed for that. It’s designed to have kids analyze, evaluate and debate.
Ultimately, our goal is to have kids graduate thinking for themselves; able to evaluate evidence, build a cogent arguments and devise solutions to civic problems. America is different from every other country. Our Constitution is what brought us and holds us together.
Can you tell me a bit about how you evaluate the efficacy of iCivics tools and how you use those results to develop strategies?
We are very metrics-driven. We collect a range of data We analyze which games are the most popular, how many lesson plans are downloaded, where our traffic originates, the time our users spend on the site, how their preferences evolve over time and so on. We don’t use it to assess kids because our games are designed for failure and learning but we report information back to teachers to use for instruction.
In deciding about our product development evolution, we assess how many students engage with our games. But this is not only about popularity. We talk to our teachers all the time and get their input. Lastly, we ensure that we meet all of the learning standards.
As younger generations are more and more involved with different technologies, how have you been working to keep your resources relevant and in tune with the demands of this demographic?
This is critical, being relevant to the new generations of kids is our premise. We rely in our staff and our community of educators to help stay connected to what is happening in schools. The key is to stay close to how kids are evolving and what kinds of issues and questions remain fresh and relevant to them. Our team is very talented at communicating information to students by putting them in the center of the action. Technologies change but the message remains evergreen.
How extensive is your teacher network?
We now have over 100,000 registered teachers all over the country, in every 50 states. Florida is our number one state by far because of state legislation, but in addition that, we have a 30-member educator network, all volunteer. These are folks that are so excited about iCivics that they volunteer their time to iCivics. They chat for us, do webinars, host Twitter parties, blog for us, and represent us to their local state educator networks.
Have you been gearing your educational content towards the upcoming presidential election?
Yes, the current election is very helpful to focus attention on civic education. We’re getting a lot of interest in our games ‘Win The White House’ and ‘Executive Command’. We are releasing a new version of ‘Win the White House’ this year in March. Students are curious at this time about how the election process works and iCivics can help shed light on a complex process. Teachers might be uncomfortable with teaching about the election. We need to give them the support to teach the process in a non-partisan way. We’ve seen a lot of stories about civic education, we’re getting interest from the media, we hope that will result in a lot of classrooms taking up the challenge to get students interested and knowledgeable about how our electoral system works and how students can get involved.
Education in the US has recently been the subject of extensive criticism, as shown with the replacement of No Child Left Behind with Every Student Succeeds. Last year, the Nation’s Report Card for civics was released- only 23% of eighth-graders scored at or above proficiency in civics. How are you working to expand iCivics’ reach and ensure students are prepared to engage as citizens?
So there are two parts to your question.
One is about policy. We’ve not been supported by education policy so far.We hope that states across the country choose to make civic education and social studies more broadly, a higher priority. We saw that process work in Florida, where the legislature passed the Sandra Day O’Connor Education Act in 2010. Student achievement in civics in Florida has skyrocketed since then.
iCivics would like to highlight the impact of civic education at the local level. How students can be better prepared for engaged citizenship through education. We think this is a non-partisan issue.
On the reach side, iCivics is planning to expand its programming to high schools. That should more than double our current reach of 3 million to 10 million students.
On the product side, we’re trying to expand what we do to ensure that our students are fully prepared. iCivics is very good at teaching civic knowledge and skills. We hope to build partnerships with other organizations to develop project-based learning and action civics where students turn knowledge into action.
What do you believe is the root of this issue surrounding lack of civic education?
Education is a complicated topic, as it should be because it affects the futures of our most precious beings: our kids. We’ve had fairly simply solutions layered on a very complicated problem. I think people are recognizing now that simple assessments and accountability measures while necessary, do not do our kids justice as a single policy lever, In that push for simple solutions, social studies was left out because it is not simple to assess… or to teach. Only now do we have people coming back and saying, ‘They can answer 2+2, but they can’t think’. This is where I think we need to come back to social studies and civics. Civics and social studies is where kids learn how to dissect a complicated issue with many points of view, analyze the components, find evidence, support conclusions, write an argument, debate civilly with others and agree on a course of action. This is what students will have to do in their adult lives and yes, we will have to build better/easier assessments but our goal should not be guided by what we can measure now but what we want to be able to measure.
That’s what we in the civic education community have to do, that’s our side of the equation. We have to paint the picture in a way that will make it clear what our democracy is losing by not investing in the development of students as active citizens.
What have you found to be the most rewarding outcome of your time as executive director so far?
I work with the Supreme Court on a daily basis, and for a lawyer, it’s very rewarding. We’re a small organization held to world-class standards, which I welcome. I have an amazing board and working with them teaches me so much every day. Justice O’Connor is a force of nature and I have been privileged to get to know her and her determination.
We also have an amazing team full of dedicated and very talented individuals. I am honored to work with them.