effects of school climate on civic engagement

Sarah K. Bruch (Iowa) and Joe Soss (Minnesota) are conducting important research on the relationships between school climate and young people’s civic engagement. They have more research in the pipeline, but their working paper entitled “Learning where we stand: How school experiences matter for civic marginalization and political inequality” is already available.

Bruch and Soss challenge the idea that schools prepare students for democracy by transmitting a set of skills and knowledge that make people better citizens. If that were the whole picture, then more–and more equal–civic education would yield a better and more equal democracy. But Bruch and Soss note that schools are also institutions and communities that can encourage–or discourage–participation by demonstrating how the larger society works. Bruch and Soss did not invent this framework–it has a scholarly heritage, which they summarize, and it is being forcefully advocated by young people today–but they contribute important empirical findings.

Bruch and Soss use nationally representative surveys of students and administrators to measure the strictness of the school’s disciplinary policies, the perceived negativity of the school’s culture, individual students’ reported personal experiences with punishments, perceptions of unfair treatment by the school, rates of membership in school groups, and reports of feeling included or marginal in the school community. Some of these factors are about perceptions of the whole school, and others about perceived personal experiences. Some are about treatment by adults, while others involve treatment by fellow students. Some come from student data; others, from administrators.

To a large extent, these factors are related to race, class, and gender. To illustrate with a strong example, African American boys whose parents have little education are more than ten times more likely to be punished by a school than White girls with well-educated parents.

In a multivariate model that includes many other factors, most of these school climate variables are related to civic engagement, with harsher and less inclusive climates depressing graduates’ community engagement, voter turnout, and trust in government. But there are important differences among these relationships.

Perceptions of unfair treatment are related directly to lower civic and political engagement and trust in government. Not being involved in school activities is a strong predictor of being disengaged from community after graduation, but half of that relationship is indirect: students who miss out on school activities go on to have adult experiences with criminal justice, welfare, etc., that are related to disengagement from civic life.

Authoritative disciplinary climates are related directly to more civic engagement, more voting, and higher trust in government, but such climates also predict adult roles that tend to depress these outcomes. The net impact is insignificant for voting and civic engagement and comes out as positive for trust in government. This finding begins to suggest that the problem is not school discipline per se: in fact, a well-ordered school may be a good place to learn to be a citizen. The main problem is unfairness. In political philosophers’ terms, a school can restrict freedom (defined as individual choice) by establishing and enforcing rules, but it should avoid “domination” in the sense of arbitrary power.

See also: school discipline in a democracyavoiding arbitrary command.

About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University’s Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.

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