effects of debate, discussion, and simulation in k-12 schools, and persistent civic gaps

Today, CIRCLE released a new study entitled “Do Discussion, Debate, and Simulations Boost NAEP Civics Performance?,” by our lead researcher, Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg. The NAEP surveys a representative sample of 26,000 students. It asks them detailed questions about their civic knowledge, plus some items about what they have experienced in social studies classes. We find that students who have discussed current events, debated current issues, and participated in simulations (such as mock trial, Model UN, or iCivics) score higher on the NAEP. These pedagogies have other purposes, such as teaching young people to deliberate and interesting them in the news. The NAEP does not test those outcomes. Thus it is especially good news that these interactive teaching methods are associated with higher NAEP scores.

However, three concerns arise. First, upper-income students and White students are more likely to receive these experiences. Second, the expected patterns do not apply at the fourth grade level, where more discussion, debate, and simulation is associated with lower NAEP scores. And third, White and affluent students appear to benefit the most from these experiences.

I would guess that the fourth grade results can be explained by the extremely small amount of time allocated to social studies: about 1.7 hours per week. That may produce a real tradeoff: either learn to discuss current events or learn the material tested on the NAEP Civics (such as the Bill of Rights).

The unequal impact of these practices at 8th and 12th grade requires more attention. We often see the opposite pattern–disadvantaged young people benefiting more from good education, because they don’t get the same experiences elsewhere. It could be that the quality of these pedagogies is worse, on average, in schools that serve low-income and minority youth.  Or perhaps the curricular modules are not culturally appropriate–for example, if the topics that the kids debate are more relevant in suburbia than in the inner cities. Or perhaps we were unable to account for other factors in the local environment (such as bad governments) that reduce the impact of civic education.

In any case, these practices do benefit all groups at the 8th- and 12th-grade levels, so they should be encouraged and supported.

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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.