States have various policies in place that we might hope would encourage civic learning and engagement. Examples are curricular requirements (for social studies and/or civics classes), mandatory tests, and even the statewide service mandate in Maryland. We don’t know much about how policies affect experiences at the classroom level, although we do know that certain experiences are valuable–notably, moderated discussions of controversial issues, well-conceived service projects, and challenging simulations of political or legal institutions.
My colleagues and I were able to combine information about all the extant state policies with evidence from the Knight Foundation’s survey of 100,000 high school students. This survey gave us information about the kids’ backgrounds, their experiences in classrooms and schools, and certain civic outcomes related to the First Amendment, such as valuing freedom of speech and using the news media. As expected, we found positive associations between classroom-level experiences and the outcomes we value. For instance, discussing controversial issues once again emerged as a beneficial opportunity. But we found no statistical links between state policies and classroom activities or students’ outcomes.
I conclude that the states are basically barking up the wrong trees. We need new types of policies that would actually encourage the activities we want to see in classrooms. Mandating courses and testing students’ academic knowledge of politics are worthy policies, but they don’t get us the values and habits we want to see.
(See Mark Hugo Lopez, Peter Levine, Kenneth Dautrich, and David Yalof, “Schools, Education Policy and the Future of the First Amendment, Political Communication, vol. 26, no. 1, January-March 2009.)