the importance of civics for less advantaged kids

Perhaps the main reason that I am so committed to the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools is that civic education can increase the political clout of less-advantaged kids. Here is the evidence:

  • People need factual knowledge to participate in politics. Unless they understand who’s running, when an election is scheduled, and what the current issues are, they simply cannot vote. The same is true for other forms of political participation, such as protest. Therefore, studies find a very strong correlation between political knowledge and participation. There is a weaker relationship between knowledge and participation in civil society.
  • In the US, there is a big gap in political knowledge between advantaged and disadvantaged students. While US kids overall did better than the international average on a 1999 assessment, educationally disadvantaged students scored as badly as those in the worst-performing countries. There was also a 38 percentage-point gap in expectations of voting between more advantaged and less advantaged kids. (See details on p. 5 of this pdf.)
  • The biggest change in civics teaching since 1972 has been the dropping of 9th grade civics. Meanwhile, social studies has been cut in many elementary schools. “American Government” classes remain common at 12th grade. But we know that only about two thirds of all students, and only one half of African Americans and Latinos, are completing 12th grade. So the disappearance of civics in earlier grades is hitting less advantaged kids harder.
  • In general, the quality of civics instruction is better than people sometimes assume. Most teachers use interactive lessons and actvities. However, according to the 1998 NAEP, students of color and students from low-education families were the least likely to report experiencing interactive classroom learning activities in their social studies classes, such as role-playing exercises, mock trials, visits from community members, or letter writing.
  • Students gain civic skills and confidence when they have a voice in the management of their schools. One way to accomplish that is by making the student government empowered and representative. But Daniel McFarland and Carlos Starmanns (Stanford) find that student governments are much more common and more empowered in affluent suburban schools than in poor urban ones.
  • By advocating better civics education from k-12, we hope to benefit young people who are not on track for college, young people from poor households, and young people of color. The result should be more civic and political participation by those citizens.

    4 thoughts on “the importance of civics for less advantaged kids

    1. PW

      How do you draw into civics those kids who (are often justified to) feel as though they are not part of America? We have a system which disconnects many kids from opportunity and for whom “civics” (i.e., learning how to engage in democracy) is based on a lie. Why learn how to respect a government which has betrayed your parents and which most adults now agree publicly (home, TV, everywhere) is seriously corrupt?

    2. Peter Levine


      This is a great question. A few thoughts —

      1) “Civic participation” not only includes voting and other political actions that are supportive of the state. It also includes protest and extra-state politics (e.g., community-organizing). Good civic education provides skills that kids can use in relatively radical ways, if they so choose.

      2) Subtle and difficult issues arise when teaching kids who have good reasons to distrust institutions. If they distrust the state completely, then they are unlikely to participate, and that hurts them politically. But if you tell them to trust institutions, they simply won’t believe you, and for understandable reasons. Meira Levinson, a middle school social studies teacher with a PhD in political science, is writing a book on just that topic. See her article, “Solving the Civic Achievement Gap in De Facto Segregated Schools” for an introduction. (pdf.)

      3) I agree that our political system is flawed and biased, yet I also believe that participation is worthwhile and failure to participate is costly. Therefore, I want low-income and minority kids to learn civics in such a way that they will vote, join organizations, and address local problems politically. This goal rests on an assumption about the relative accessibility and accountability of our political system. I don’t actually think that American democracy s “based on a lie,” although it has structural problems–the type that past generations have solved through political action. I can’t prove that this position is correct, but I’m stickin’ to it.

    3. Lydus

      Is voting participating in politics? It’s more like a civil duty or privilege to me. I think participation starts when you really do something in politics. I mean, it’s weird to say that people are participating in politics just because they voted; they participated in democracy.

      And something else, what happens after school? Most of (university) students I know here in the Netherlands never read a newspaper. When we are in a discussion its easy to notice who knows his facts, and actually people surprise me when they read a newspaper, and know a bit more. The problem is that they just don’t care, and you can’t force them to read a good newspaper. So what’s after school?

    4. mwallae1

      the flaw i see in the original post is in directionality; these studies generally assume that people are politically active because they are politically knowledgeable, and not the reverse. does it really seem so far fetched to believe that people take an interest in learning about politics because they feel they have the power to change them? and that what is needed is not further education about the civics process but straight out more ability to use power (then forcing you to figure out how to use it intelligently)? as an educator, i find that situations in which my students have the ability to actually make mistakes and have victories are sitautions which create oppurtunities where they want to learn; after all, what fun is power if you can’t figure out what to do with it? i think the last point reflects this well, and could provide one way to answer PW’s question: let the kids have some power and help them figure out what to do with it. teachers jealously guard power (often for good reasons), but sometimes you have to live a little dangerously.

      and just to add to Peter’s notes, although i don’t think they are incorrect, the political process is not the only way people can be civically involved. that is, you can get people to engage in society without even broaching the concepts of voting or protesting or political mechanization; lessons on interpersonal skills, organizing, negotiation, and group dynamics can play a very real part in civic education. to put it differently, we can often have a little less Pol-Sci and a little more Psych (and yes, i am entirely biased, since i am a social psychologist). *grins*

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