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.