Learning from Research about Preparing Students for Civic Participation 

One of the most exciting events in the last few weeks was a dynamic webinar co-hosted by the Center for Educational Equity and CivXNow, entitled Civic Education: Essential for Sustaining American Democracy. Featuring four leading civic-education researchers and scholars—David Campbell, Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg, Meira Levinson, and Jane C. Lo—and moderated by Rashid Duroseau of Democracy Prep Public Schools, the discussion highlighted the importance of civic education for promoting civic engagement in young people—as well as the challenges educators face in a highly polarized political climate to prepare and empower their students, especially their students of color.

Preparing all students for civic and political participation is the foundation of the right to education in New York and many other states, and we believe it is the most important motivation for the fight for educational equity today. The webinar was both a call to action for the essential work to be done in civic education, and a discussion of what the research reveals about the state of civic education and what kinds of interventions and strategies have proven effective.

Shawn Healy, senior director of state policy and advocacy at CivXNow, began the program by laying out alarming statistics about the state of civic knowledge and civic education today. As the numbers make clear, not only has a basic understanding of the American governmental system eroded, so too has public confidence in our democratic institutions, fueling increased political polarization. Alongside the decades-long reduction in emphasis on and funding for social studies and civics in schools, and the more-recent culture wars taking hold at school board meetings and in the classroom, the crisis of civic education and civic engagement constitutes an existential threat to our democracy.

Much of the panelists’ discussion centered on research-based ideas for addressing these challenges. David Campbell, the Packey J. Dee Professor of American Democracy at the University of Notre Dame, talked about the importance of school ethos and culture to civic participation, and particularly of exposing students to real politics and political discussions in the classroom. Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg, the Newhouse Director of CIRCLE at Tufts University, emphasized the data that spoke to the effectiveness of increasing the turnout of young people to the polls through interpersonal encouragement to vote and nonpartisan instruction that highlights the importance of voting for sustaining democracy. Her research also spoke to the importance of teaching media literacy in schools.

Jane Lo, assistant professor of teacher education at Michigan State University, highlighted the effectiveness of meaningful, relevant civic experiences for setting students up for political engagement, and their power for helping students of color see that the future of our governmental system depends on them. Building on these ideas, Meira Levinson, the Juliana W. and William Foss Thompson Professor of Education and Society at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, emphasized the importance of engaging young people in local civic and political issues, which are less polarized than national ones, and giving students the opportunity to practice and become effective at civic skills the same way they practice other skills learned in school, such as reading and math.

All panelists and presenters spoke passionately about the powerful opportunity civic education poses to help us expand individual democratic capacity and strengthen our democracy. Good civic education in the 21st century means more than just increasing knowledge: it means building skills, participating in meaningful experiences, and anchoring belief in democratic norms for all our students.

At the Center for Educational Equity, we believe that every child in America has a right to an education that prepares them for civic life, and that our nation needs its youth to receive a good civic education if our democracy is to survive. We hope you will join us in this mission.

If you missed Civic Education: Essential for Sustaining American Democracy, we encourage you watch it here.