What the research tells us about the outcomes of a good civics education

Pedro Enamorado,
Americans today are woefully uninformed about our democracy, and many blame the poor state of civics education for it—and they have a point. How can we expect people to participate in meaningful and informed public discourse when two-thirds of Americans can’t even pass the rock-bottom basic U.S. Citizenship Exam? With this problem in mind, University of Notre Dame’s David E. Campbell recently published a literature review that found that a robust civic education makes a significant impact on future political knowledge and participation.

Campbell examines political science studies on civics education in secondary schools and draws from related fields, such as economics and psychology, for his literature review. Then he groups the studies into five key findings that look at the effect of classroom instruction, extracurricular activities, service learning, school culture, and public policy on civic outcomes such as political knowledge and participation. He begins with a seminal 1968 study that found that formal civic education did not improve civic outcomes for most students, but that it did improve them for African American students. This is termed the “compensation effect” because African American students’ civic education made up for the disparities between politically active white and African American students’ home and community experiences. But most scholars interpreted its results as saying civic education had no impact on students, producing a decades-long research gap.

The author proceeds to cite later studies, which found that classroom instruction in civics does, in fact, produce small improvements on knowledge, test outcomes, and likelihood to vote. This applies more to classrooms that are open to sharing differing opinions. He also cites studies showing that adopting specific civics curricula in classrooms, such as We The People, produces significant learning gains, but does not affect students’ attitudes towards civics or politics. Moreover, Campbell cites studies that find two “incidental outcomes” of classroom instruction: a “trickle-up effect,” where students improve parents’ and relatives’ civic knowledge and participation; and a correlation between developing verbal aptitude as a teen and being politically active.

Campbell’s review also finds that student participation in extracurricular activities (excluding sports) and volunteerism is correlated with more civic participation. He notes, however, that the literature is unclear whether it’s because students with a proclivity towards civic engagement self-select into those activities. Furthermore, Campbell comments that studies have yet to examine the role of motivation for volunteerism (e.g., resume-building versus altruism) in improving civic outcomes. Furthermore, he finds that students from low socioeconomic backgrounds are less likely to be involved in extracurriculars, so there may be a stronger causal link between involvement and civic outcomes for disadvantaged students who do participate.

The literature review distinguishes between studies on volunteerism and service learning because the latter is mandatory, either for course grade or as a graduation requirement. The author finds that most service learning studies are observational and thus unable to prove causation, and that findings are mixed on whether they positively or negatively affect civic participation in early adulthood.

Campbell’s review of the research on school culture finds that an emphasis on being an engaged citizen in high school correlates with increased rates of civic engagement, political knowledge, and a sense of empowerment to solve community problems. He notes that charter schools’ lottery admission policies make it easier for studies on charters to determine causal effects on civic outcomes and that they tend to have a positive effect on political participation. He cites a recent charter study finding that students admitted to Democracy Prep had a “16 percentage point increase in voter registration and a 12 point increase in voter turnout” over a control group. In addition, Campbell finds that students who feel unfairly treated by school discipline practices are less likely to vote or have as much trust in government, especially students of color.

The final major finding is that state education policy is associated with improved civic knowledge and participation. The author cites a twenty-year-long randomized study showing that an intervention education-model called Fast Track emphasizing psychosocial skills such as self-control, fair play, and empathy in early education incidentally produced long-term effects on voter turnout for high-risk background children. He notes that this can translate to policy impacts if schools apply similar interventions. And while some studies show little correlation between state-level policy and civic outcomes, Campbell cites a recent study of eighteen- to twenty-four-year-olds showing that when states imposed high-stakes civics test requirements for graduation, students—especially immigrant and Latino students—had higher NAEP scores and more political knowledge after high school. It suggests that the compensation effect that applied most strongly to African Americans half a century ago now applies more strongly to Latinos who tend to have low levels of political participation.

Campbell concludes his literature review with six recommendations. First, he recommends that education studies should test for incidental effects on civic outcomes. Second, he suggests more attention to the compensation effect in all future studies. Third, he encourages civics studies to test for “trickle-up” effects. Fourth, he invites researchers to study variation in school culture within the public, charter, and private school contexts. Fifth, he believes scholars should look beyond conventional forms of civic education, such as the effect of elected officials visiting a school. Sixth, he stresses the need for studies that determine causal pathways and not just correlation.

After decades of studies, we have learned that civic education certainly translates to political knowledge and participation in early adulthood. Campbell’s most salient findings are the impact of school culture, the positive effect of adopting high-stakes civics exams, and the compensation effect of civic education on students of color. Schools should be aware of the positive effect their culture can have on political participation and of the negative impact of poor discipline practices. And states should consider designing quality, mandatory civics exams because they can translate to learning gains. Indeed, a Bellwether study shows that Louisiana and Washington are already doing this. Lastly, researchers should pay close attention to the compensation effect and “trickle-up” of civics interventions on students of color’s political knowledge and participation in future studies.

SOURCE: David E. Campbell. “What Social Scientists Have Learned About Civic Education: A Review of the Literature,” Peabody Journal of Education

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