setting a higher standard for success in civic education

Sarah Garland has a good piece in The Hechinger Report on whether schools–and specifically, civic educators–can combat political extremism. She presents the evidence as mixed, and no one thinks that schools are equipped to solve that problem all by themselves.

Meanwhile Weinschenk & Dawes have a new article that re-analyzes longitudinal data from US students and finds that civic education does not boost voter turnout, once other factors are considered.*

My response is the same in both cases. Thousands of dedicated civic educators are doing their best in classrooms and community settings. However, as a society, we have not invested in civics. We have not put much public or private money into it, or built it into policy reforms, or required kids to spend much time on it, or emphasized it when educating future teachers, or even conveyed its importance to most of our youth.

As a result, the aggregate effects from taking a civics course are not likely to be large. Program evaluations and studies of specific classrooms sometimes find big impacts (albeit in the short term, since few evaluations involve long-term follow-up), but the effects of typical courses are limited.

If people take away the conclusion that civics doesn’t work, that will be a self-fulfilling prophesy. (And it would reflect a misunderstanding of the relationship between data–which always describes the past–and envisioning the future.) But it is true that we must invest considerably more in civics to get the results we need.

*Weinschenk, A., & Dawes, C. (2021). Civic Education in High School and Voter Turnout in Adulthood. British Journal of Political Science, 1-15. doi:10.1017/S0007123420000435. See also The Educating for Democracy Act of 2020.