civics projects are good for AP scores (and what that means more generally)

University of Washington Professor Walter Parker and colleagues are running experiments in which some classes take AP US Government as it’s typically taught (textbooks, lectures, and some discussion), and others experience a curriculum based on mock trials and other projects. All the kids take the same AP standardized test. The project-based curriculum evolves from year to year, because Parker and colleagues didn’t have a perfect model all ready to adopt. But, as they have run the experiment, the kids in the project-based courses have performed at least as well on the AP test as their peers, while also demonstrating higher scores on civic engagement.

All this is well described in a Seattle Times piece by Linda Shaw. The project is important as a rigorous test of the theory that people learn better when they are engaged and interested. Here, the outcome measure (an AP test) is artificial and isolating. Each kid answers the questions privately, to demonstrate her knowledge of relatively abstract material. The kids’ creativity and interaction with each other are not assessed. And yet, learning the material through experience yields equal or better test scores.

The project is also important as a model of collaboration between teachers and university-based scholars. It isn’t a randomized study of a prepackaged intervention (although we do those, and I would defend them), but rather a collaborative process of design and redesign that is then measured very rigorously.

Finally, this project suggests a partial solution to a deep problem. Contrary to popular belief, we have not really cut civic education from our schools. But we have transformed it from a set of discussions and projects into a bunch of academic courses that mimic the social sciences in college–of which AP US Government is a prominent example.

In 1928-9, according to federal statistics, more than half of all American ninth-graders took “civics.” This was the tail end of the Progressive Era, and “civics” meant learning about one’s own community and, often, doing group projects outside of the school.* Enrollment in courses called “civics” had fallen to 13.4 by the early 1970s.

In 1948-9, 41.5 percent of American high school students took “problems of democracy,” which typically involved reading and debating stories from the daily newspaper. By the early 1970s, that percentage was down to 8.9.** But the percentage of high school students who have taken any government course has been basically steady since 1915-1916, and AP US Government is the fastest growing AP course.

Thus we have basically transformed civic education from guided experience of citizenship*** into a dispassionate study of the US government. On philosophical grounds, I object. But as long as that trend continues, Walter Parker’s research is enormously helpful. He shows that by using some of the old techniques of “civics” and “problems of democracy,” we can actually achieve higher scores on a what amounts to a poli. sci. exam–presumably because kids are more engaged and challenged.

*Meira Levinson and Peter Levine, “Taking Informed Action to Engage Students in Civic Life,” Social Education, vol. 77 no 6 (Nov Dec 2013), pp. 339-341

**Richard G. Niemi and Julia Smith, “Enrollments in High School Government Classes: Are We Short-Changing Both Citizenship and Political Science Training?” PS: Political Science and Politics, vol. 34, no. 2 (June 2001), p. 282.

***”Guided experiential education” is Levinson’s term.