Category Archives: civics

Impact of civics education on voting

Flickr photo by Eric Langhorst

Jennifer Bachner (Harvard Government department PhD student) has a recent paper From Classroom to Voting Booth: The Effect of High School Civic Education on Turnout on the impact of civics education on voting.  Moreover, the paper suggests that civics education may help to level the political playing field since the gains in voting are greatest among those who have not been socialized by their families to vote.  33 States now require such civics classes (American Government/Civics) and many more school districts offer such classes.   Almost 80% of US high school graduates have taken a minimum of 0.5 credits in such classes, up from 62% in 1982.

Her research uses the NELS data (National Educational Longitudinal Surveys) of 1998 and 2002 and tracks voting in the national 1992-2006 elections.  She controls for baseline interest in politics and involvement in extra-curriculars, parents’ level of political socialization of their child (discussion of politics and whether they subscribe to a newpaper), the quality of the school in which the child attends, and the child’s race and gender, and parents’ native language and level of education.

Abstract follows:

A healthy democracy requires a citizenry that participates in political life. While interventions such as removing barriers to registration and mobilizing partisans have received frequent scholarly attention, formal civic education has been largely ignored.  Using longitudinal data and a matching analysis, this paper shows that students who complete a year of coursework in American Government/Civics are 3-6 percentage points more likely to vote in an election following high school than those without exposure to civic education.  Further, this effect is magnified among students whose parents are not highly politicized.  Among students who report not discussing politics with their parents, additional coursework is associated with a 7-11 percentage point increase in the probability of voting.  This result suggests that civic education compensates for a relative lack of political socialization at home, and thereby enhances participatory equality.

Note: She finds consistent results, regardless of whether she uses matched or unmatched data;  she uses matching to ensure that those who get the civics classes and those who don’t look as similar as possible to each other on their propensity to get involved politically.

2008 Civic Health Index: Sustaining civic engagement beyond Election Day

The National Conference on Citizenship (NCoC) today released their 2008 civic report called “America’s Civic Health Index: Beyond the Vote”. [True confessions: the Saguaro Seminar was a co-advisor to NCoC on the report, together with CIRCLE.]

The report focuses on the encouraging uptick in youth civic engagement and strategies for sustaining this engagement beyond Election Day. One of the cautionary findings of the report is that many Americans did not expect their political engagement to continue after Election Day.  For example, only 14% were confident they would try to change local policies regarding schools, work or neighborhoods.

That said, the report does note 4 policies on which there is broad bipartisan support:

  1. Giving young people the opportunity to earn tuition money through a year of service (87% support)
  2. Holding a national deliberation among citizens on some issue and requiring Congress to respond to what the citizen-deliberators say (80% support)
  3. Requiring service learning in schools (service learning uses community service projects to teach underlying academic skills; so for example a project to measure the pollution of a local streambed could also teach young people about scientific measurement).  76% of respondents support this.
  4. Strengthening civic education through new tests in this subject (67% support).

The report also highlights high levels of political participation thus far in the 2008 election and the many varied forms that this political participation is taking.

NCoC is featuring a keynote address by Sandra Day O’Connor who recently called for beefing up civics curricula and a panel this afternoon on sustaining civic engagement, featuring people like “Alan Khazei, Founder and CEO of Be the Change, Barb Quaintance VP of AARP, former Congressman Bob Edgar, CEO of Common Cause, Ian Rowe, Vice President at MTV, and Maya Enista, CEO of Political consultant Joe Trippi will moderate a discussion on the Internet community and community between Founding President of Facebook, Sean Parker and William Galston, Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution.”

All I Want for Christmas is our Civics back

Former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor has an Op-Ed in the Christian Science Monitor sounding a theme very simpatico with the Saguaro Seminar’s concerns: the strange disappearance of civics courses.

She notes that the recent uptick in youth voting is encouraging, but it is a thin democracy indeed without a deeper understanding of civics, which she notes is a casualty of high-stakes educational testing. And we have been paying the price in a decline in civic skills and knowledge. *On the last nationwide civics assessment, administered in 2006, two- thirds of students scored below proficiency. Not even a third of eighth-graders surveyed could identify the historical purpose of the Declaration of Independence. Less than a fifth of high school seniors could explain how citizen participation benefits democracy.*

As troubling, she notes a growing race and class discrepancy: a *widening civic achievement gap. Hispanic and African-American students are twice as likely as their white counterparts to lack civic knowledge and skills, while low- income students score significantly lower than middle- and upper- income students. In other words, our schools’ failure when it comes to civic education is especially stark in communities most in need of civic engagement.*

She calls on states and the federal government on the 221rst anniversary of the Constitution to beef up the civic content of schools to truly make our democracy strong.

For some interesting links on civics, see our Saguaro page on this.

Read: Sandra Day O’Connor’s, “A democracy without civics?” (Christian Science Monitor Op-Ed, 9/18/08)

Youth civic knowledge: glass relatively empty or rising?

I reported earlier in Johnnie and Janie Learn Civics Better the rises in 4th grade civic scores and the flat scores for high school seniors.

Students Need Civic Classes: Americans show an appalling ignorance about citizenship” (Fort Worth Journal, 6/5/07, p. 11, Andrea Neal Op-Ed) focuses less on the fact that the glass is becoming fuller and more on the overall low civic knowledge in the U.S. as a call to action.  The article quotes Charles N. Quigley, executive director of the Center for Civic Education, to say that “America’s school children are woefully unprepared to take their place as informed, engaged citizens.”

Quigley notes that historically most American high schools offered three civics/government classes.  Starting in the 1970s, most high schools kept the “American Government” class, but dropped “Civics” and “Problems of Democracy” that helped students understand the role of citizens in democracy, discussed current issues, and encouraged students to participate.  And the American Government class is offered too late (in 12th grade) and thus doesn’t reach America’s teenage dropouts.

Despite the fact that 4th grade scores have risen, Quigley finds knowledge levels still depressing:

  • Only 24% of students were rated ‘proficient’ in civic knowledge. 

  • 57% of 12th graders did not understand federalism (division of power between state and federal governments).

  • Only 5 percent [of 12th graders] could explain checks on the president’s power, such as Congress’ ability to override vetoes. 

  • Only 26 percent of 8th graders could “accurately explain a passage from the Declaration of Independence.” 

  • Only about half of 4th graders could identify one of the basic purposes of our government.

The editorial ignores the improvements on the test among 4th graders, but we wholeheartedly agree that our students and our society would benefit dramatically by restoring Civics and Problems of Democracy in our nation’s schools.

Johnnie and Janie learn civics better

Fourth-Graders Improve History, Civics Scores; Seniors Make Significant Gains Nationally (Washington Post, 5/17/07, p. A9, Jay Matthews) reports that the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) chronicled a rise from 69% in 1998 to 73% in 2006 in the percentage of fourth-graders performing at or above basic level; high school seniors’ civic scores remained flat. [History scores also rose from 64-70% over this period for fourth graders and rose for high school seniors.]

The 2006 Civics Report is available here.

“Experts said the rise in fourth-grade scores might be linked to strenuous efforts…to improve the teaching of reading in kindergarten through third grade. ‘Higher scores in fourth-grade history and civics go along with the recently reported higher reading scores,’ said Karin Chenoweth, a writer for the District-based Achievement Alliance and author of the book  It’s Being Done: Academic Success in Unexpected Schools. In the last NAEP reading report, fewer students — particularly African American and Latino students — scored below the basic level in the reading test, which means that more students are able to read and learn about history and civics. This could very well explain the higher history and civic scores at fourth grade, which are most pronounced among African American and Latino students.”

The civics test measures: Civic Knowledge, Intellectual Skills and Civic Dispositions.

Civic Knowledge tests concepts like the foundations of the American political system, the relationship of the U.S. to other countries, the rights and roles of citizens.

Intellectual Skills measures skills of mind and analysis to enable citizens to put knowledge to civic effect through identifying/describing, explaining/analyzing, and evaluating/taking positions/defending positions.

Civic Dispositions tests the traits of public and private character necessary to preserve an effective democracy, such as: participating in informed, thoughtful and effective manner in civic affairs, respecting individual worth and human dignity, or promoting the healthy functioning of American constitutional democracy.

Sample question booklets here.

Schools of choice boost civic values

In a meta-analysis of 21 quantitative studies, Patrick J. Wolf (Univ. of Arkansas) found that schools of choice (private and public) better inculcate students in 7 civic values  necessary for democratic citizenship: political tolerance, voluntarism, political knowledge, political participation, social capital, civic skills, and patriotism.  Study called “Civics Exam: Schools of Choice Boost Civic Values” in EducationNext journal (Summer 2007). Among the more rigorous studies analyzed, 23 of 59 findings (52%) show school choice or private schooling as having statistically significant positive effects on civic values. [Ten findings show a neutral effect and only one finding showed a negative effect of school choice on civic values.]

All these studies control for selection bias in addition to differences in student backgrounds in the various schools. Most of the studies  compared students in private schools with those in public schools, but the effects were found in Catholic and non-Catholic private schools.

Wolf concluded that “These results suggest that the expansion of school choice is more likely to enhance than diminish the civic values of our next generation of citizens.”