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In Conversation With ... Carly Muetterties

Carly Muetterties

Kentucky School Advocate
November 2021

In Conversation With features an interview between a leader or figure involved in public education and a representative of the Kentucky School Advocate.

Carly Muetterties is the chair of the Kentucky Civic Education Coalition, formed earlier this year to promote civic education in Kentucky schools. Muetteries, director of Learning Design at Newsela, a literacy-focused edtech company, is the former executive director of the Kentucky Council for the Social Studies and a former social studies teacher in Fayette County Schools.

Q. You chair the executive committee of the newly formed Kentucky Civic Education Coalition. Why is more civic education needed in Kentucky?  

A.
The ability to make informed decisions in your out-of-school life is the reason we have public education in this country. Civics has become incredibly undervalued as the grounding for what we do. In many states, not just Kentucky, students are required to take a class called civics, but that is not enough to help them understand how what they learn in the classroom connects to their lives.

Civic education teaches us to grapple with different sources of information, use evidence, make meaning, make informed decisions but also engage with one another and have democratic discussions. People think that talking to one another should always be a debate instead of considering how we use discussions with one another as a way to come together.

Q. Who are some of the other members of this executive committee and why were they chosen?  

A. 
Obviously we wanted to include people directly impacted by the work, so we made sure educators and students had a voice. But civics is a much more holistic experience than just one course in a student’s academic life. So we have included different stakeholders who need to be in the conversation around civic education, from policy level to the resources we would provide. Sen. Max Wise and Rep. Regina Huff, respective chairs of the education committees for the Senate and House, and Secretary of State Michael Adams are on the committee. We reached out to school board members and other organizations engaged in that work, for example, the Frazier History Museum and the Kentucky Historical Society, both strong advocates for supporting teachers and providing resources. We also connected with groups like iCivics, a national organization for civic education, to capitalize on resources beyond our state. Our group will be a part of the iCivics-affiliated council programs.

Q. At a time where things are so divisive, it's hard to get Democrats and Republicans to agree. How are you able to form a bipartisan group?

A. 
The number one question for us is how do you engage with both parties, especially since education is a very divisive issue in Kentucky. It’s much easier than people think when it comes to civic education, because ultimately civic education is nonpartisan. We’re asking students to become informed on issues that they learn about in school and analyze, get perspective and form their own informed perspective. It’s not about becoming informed with one perspective, it’s about using skills of different subjects to become knowledgeable, and then giving them a space to apply that learning to have a more authentic, meaningful education that you use, that doesn’t feel like you leave that knowledge behind when you leave school. That authenticity is something both parties can rally around.

Carly Muetterties, chairwoman of the new Kentucky Civic Education Coalition, says civics education is not a partisan issue, it teaches students how to apply what they learn to real life by giving them the skills to evaluate different sources of information, make informed decisions and have civil discussions. 

 Q. One goal of the coalition is to propose bipartisan legislation to strengthen civic education. Will there be proposals for the 2022 General Assembly?A.

I’ve been in conversation with our two legislator members and Michael Adams and there’s a strong interest, but other issues might hinder that for 2022. While it is a goal, the reason we formed this coalition is to have a more enduring structure to engage with stakeholders.

Q. The coalition is part of the Kentucky Council for the Social Studies. What does KCSS do?

A.
KCSS is the professional organization of social studies educators and is affiliated with the National Council for the Social Studies.

Q. In 2018, the legislature passed a law that required students to pass a civics test in order to graduate. Do you think that test has had an impact on students’ understanding of civics?

A.
I spoke before the Kentucky Board of Education against the civics test, not because I don’t think that information is valuable, but because measuring it on a multiple-choice exam doesn’t mean students know how to apply it. It is a measure of their ability to memorize rather than to apply. I told the board that there are other ways to assess students’ ability to understand and apply information, and that this test is not going to do that. Memorizing different elements of government doesn’t mean I know how to engage with them. I learned how to engage in political spaces by being a part of it.

Q. As the executive director of KCSS you were involved in advocating for the new Kentucky Academic Standards for Social Studies. Do you think the standards will help students become more engaged members of society?  

A. 
Yes. One strong element of the Kentucky standards is that the application of learning is an expectation for K-12. So, no matter what you’re learning, the expectation is that students will be making a connection between that content and the civic space. However, one reason KCSS and this coalition exist is to provide more support and resources for teachers and students to bring these standards to life. If social studies isn’t prioritized through money and other resources, we can’t expect change.

Q. Over the years, history instruction has evolved from teaching students to memorize dates and facts to a more inquiry-based model in which students use critical thinking and problem solving. Why is inquiry a more effective way to teach social studies?

A. 
Instead of focusing on memorizing discrete content, it’s focused on application of that content. When you can transfer your knowledge to the real world, learning science shows that is when you more fully understand something. Inquiry as an approach to learning is growing across the different disciplines. When I worked in teacher education at the University of Kentucky, I used to tell my student teachers that if they were the only ones talking, the students aren’t having the opportunity to do anything. Complexity of thinking and of learning is in that application space.

Q. The coalition met in late October. Talk about that meeting and next steps for the Coalition?

A.
At the meeting, we shared where civic education is in Kentucky, the coalition’s purpose and had participants share why they were there and what they’re interested in. Big goals are policy to strengthen civic education and more resources for teachers. I’m hoping for a core of dedicated folks who are passionate about this and can help with network building. We’ve had a lot of people contact us who are interested but who couldn’t attend the meeting so we are hoping we will have people who are committed to this, who will follow the work and be activated to do things like contact legislators.

Q. And you have set up an email list to make it easier for those who couldn’t attend the meeting to connect and get involved?

A.
Yes, I’ve learned a little about political organizing from all of this. (To sign up for updates, go to
kysscouncil.org/kcec.html)

Q. What can local boards of education do to be part of the effort to improve civic education in the state?

A. 
They can join the coalition. They can think about how resources and teachers’ professional development are being prioritized and about the resources available to students to engage in civic spaces. One powerful way boards can engage in schools is to remember that they are a governing body and the decisions they make will have a great impact on teachers and students. Think how powerful it would be if the school board would invite social studies teachers and students to the school board meeting when the school board is making a decision that will impact those groups. It would give students a taste of what civic engagement looks like and about how to develop an informed opinion and talk to stakeholders who can impact an issue.

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