Fulfilling the Democratic Aims of Education
A systemic approach for generating learning opportunities for students’ informed participation in civic and political life
BY ERICA R. HODGIN, JOSEPH KAHNE AND JOHN S. ROGERS/School Administrator, September 2020

Students from a Participate Civics class visit City Hall with LaTanya McDade, chief education officer in Chicago Public Schools, as part of a city council simulation. PHOTO COURTESY OF CHICAGO PUBLIC SCHOOLS
A school board member asks the superintendent how the school district is working to deepen students’ literacy skills. Suppose the superintendent responds this way: “Well, that’s a good question. Literacy is important. I don’t want to mandate attention to literacy because teachers are asked to do so much. But it is great that some of our teachers include reading and writing opportunities in their courses.”

Then he adds: “I think one thing we need to have is more extracurricular activities for students who are interested in reading and writing. Of course, not every student will want to join these clubs, but those who do will experience valuable opportunities.”

No superintendent would actually say this. However, suppose one substitutes “learning to read and write” with “learning how to participate in a democracy.” Now the superintendent’s response — “I don’t want to mandate [it] … but it’s great that some teachers include opportunities for civic engagement in their classes” — doesn’t seem so odd.

Indeed, while school leaders’ and districts’ mission statements frequently refer to preparing all students to be thoughtful citizens, few school systems make a systemic commitment. Districts rarely ensure all students are exposed to the full range of civic learning and skills for informed participation in civic and political life. This relative neglect is not surprising given that literacy and STEM are connected to high-stakes assessments. A recent national survey of principals by Education Week found the biggest hurdle to promoting civics was “pressure to focus on other subjects because they are tested or emphasized.”

Of course, every four years, in the run-up to the presidential election, the desire to prepare students to become informed voters resurfaces. For the most part, though, other than perhaps a required one-semester government course or a schoolwide mock election, civic education is intermittent and idiosyncratic. As a result, not all youth are adequately or equitably supported to develop civic capacities.

Distress Signals

The impact of our failure to make a systemic commitment to robust civic education is predictable. Many signs point to a civic learning deficit and a resulting strain on democratic life.

»Civic learning outcomes are low and unequal. Only 24 percent of all 8th graders score at or above the proficient level on the National Assessment of Educational Progress’ most recent civics assessment in 2018, and the proportion of Black and Latinx students achieving proficiency is lower still.

»Exposure to civic learning opportunities is inequitable. Studies find that youth receive inadequate exposure to desired civic learning opportunities and that this exposure often differs by students’ race and family income. For example, Black and Latinx high school students are less likely than white students to report experiencing current event discussions, civic simulations and an open classroom climate.

Similarly, students in high socioeconomic status classrooms are twice as likely as low-income students to report participating in service learning projects.

»Many youth (and adults) can’t judge the credibility of information. A major study from the Stanford History Education Group found fewer than one in five middle and high school students and only about one in three college students could adequately judge the accuracy of online content.

»Commitments to democracy are diminishing. Youth are far less likely than older Americans to express that they value democracy. In one national survey, twice as many 16-24-year-olds as senior citizens (24 percent versus 12 percent) said, “Having a democratic political system was a ‘bad’ or ‘very bad’ way to run the country.”
A poster in a Participate Civics classroom quotes Eric Liu’s “Ways of Power” video, an anchor concept in the civics curriculum in Chicago Public Schools. PHOTO COURTESY OF CHICAGO PUBLIC SCHOOLS

Effective Measures

Civic learning practices can lead to the cultivation of desired democratic goals. When students are supported to share multiple viewpoints on controversial public issues in a respectful manner, they forge a deeper understanding of the concepts and principles of democracy, develop increased intention to participate civically and politically, and commit to being informed voters.

Also impactful are service learning, extracurricular activities and learning how to judge the credibility of online content, to create and circulate digital content related to civic and political issues and to connect learning to students’ lived experiences.

Systemic Commitment

Over the past several years, we have supported several school districts in their efforts to establish a systemic commitment to advance civic and democratic learning.

One partner, Chicago Public Schools, has used various approaches since 2012 to institutionalize a commitment to civic learning. Chicago also invested in teacher professional development about civic learning and required students to complete two community projects to graduate.

The district integrated three additional avenues for deep attention toward civics. First, the district required a civics course in high school.

Second, the district launched student voice committees, or SVCs, which bolster youth leadership, amplify student voice and promote a positive school climate. The committees are designed to create partnerships between students and adults to engage students in productive decision making. SVCs have grown significantly in Chicago — from five schools in 2012 to 75 schools in 2019.

Finally, the district’s social science and civic engagement team further institutionalized civic learning by incorporating it into the district’s continuous improvement process. Every two years, all schools complete a schoolwide self-assessment that now includes a section related to “student voice, engagement and civic life.”

We collaborate with the district to create individual school reports highlighting the civic data from the districtwide student survey. We also provide findings about the degree to which a range of civic learning opportunities and outcomes are equitably distributed across the district with respect to student race, family socioeconomic status and student academic performance. What’s particularly exciting is that analysis of civic learning in Chicago schools is not a separate endeavor, but instead is embedded within the district’s continuous improvement process.

Showcasing Civics

The Riverside Unified School District, serving a politically diverse southern California community with 42,000 students, began a districtwide civics effort in 2017. The first step was to survey middle and high school students and conduct focus groups with students and teachers to understand their access to civic learning. These surveys and focus groups now occur yearly.

Building off of what was learned, with help from a local foundation, the district has provided teachers with professional development and support to develop civic learning projects for their students. At the end of each school year, River­side hosts an annual Civics Showcase where students present these civic learning projects to parents, community members, City Council members, teachers and fellow students. This event publicizes exemplary instances of civic learning and raises awareness about high-quality approaches.

With increasing support for this initiative and in alignment with the district’s “world-ready” graduation standard, the school board in 2019 adopted civic engagement as a priority, a public commitment to ensuring all Riverside students have access to high-quality civic learning.

A student in the Riverside, Calif., Unified School District presents his project at the district’s annual Civics Showcase. PHOTO COURTESY OF RIVERSIDE UNIFIED SCHOOL DISTRICT
Eight Avenues

While school districts will pursue these goals in differing ways, our experience in Chicago, Riverside and elsewhere has led us to identify several key strategies for advancing civic education systemwide.

»Designate a civic education champion. Identify someone in the central office who can advance a district commitment to civic learning. This individual needs the time and standing to mobilize allies, organize and plan professional development initiatives, and communicate the district’s civic learning initiatives to the broader public.

»Integrate civic learning into core goals and priorities. Districts can include language about civic learning in their expectations for graduation. Such formal measures assure educators that civic learning will remain a valued priority, even as changes inevitably occur in district leadership or key staff.

»Deepen and extend aligned agendas. Add a focus on civic learning to project-based learning, performance assessments, capstone projects, ethnic studies curricula, restorative justice and social emotional learning. View civic learning as both a particular set of practices and a priority for curriculum, instruction and school culture more generally.

»Consider professional development a key ingredient. Educators need time and support to discover and experiment with new practices within a professional learning community. If we want teachers to address democracy, they need meaningful opportunities to learn and deliberate democratically among themselves.

»Recognize exemplary civic learning. Finding ways to recognize exemplary instances of civic learning by students, teachers and/or schools helps to draw attention to the importance of civic education. This can take the form of demonstration schools, a districtwide showcase, an awards ceremony or a video about civic learning across the district — anything to raise awareness about high-quality approaches and illustrate the various avenues.

»Finding financial backing. Funding from local or regional foundations that believe in the democratic purpose of schools, youth voice and civic education can help advance the school district’s civic education work. Philanthropic support can provide seed funding that enables professional development as well as special projects or events.

»Solicit community support for the civic agenda. Reach out for support from a range of advocates, including community leaders, members of youth development groups, school board members and city/county government representatives. Communities have a vested interest in encouraging youth to participate in volunteer organizations and the electoral process.

»Report on civic learning outcomes. Data on civic learning opportunities and outcomes are a powerful source for reflection, deliberation and evaluation. School leaders can provide educators and community partners with a chance to examine the data in light of the initiative’s goals of expanding equity and access in civic education.

Navigating Politics

As school leaders propose expanding access to civic education, undoubtedly some will point to the difficulties of navigating an appropriate instructional role for civic learning in a period of increased political polarization and divisiveness. Unfortunately, ignoring these forces will not make the problem go away. Students must learn to engage productively across differences. And, as recent pressing societal issues surrounding COVID-19, racial equity and policing make clear, the need for both understanding and engagement with societal challenges is neverending. Schools should not sit on the sidelines.

Democracy always has been a core purpose underlying public education. Preparing students to engage in our democracy is not a luxury to be attended to if time permits. It is fundamentally important.

ERICA HODGIN is co-director of the Civic Engagement Research Group at the University of California, Riverside’s Graduate School of Education. Twitter: @Ed4Democracy. JOSEPH KAHNE is the Ted and Jo Dutton Presidential Chair for Education Policy and Politics at University of California, Riverside and director of the Civic Engagement Research Group. JOHN ROGERS is a professor at UCLA’s Graduate School of Education and Information Studies and director of UCLA’s Institute for Democracy, Education and Access.

Additional Resources
The authors of this article, along with their partners, have developed these resources, which support school districts to integrate civic learning opportunities for students.

»The Civic Engagement in the Digital Age video describes what civic engagement is and shares how the Oakland Unified School District is integrating civic learning districtwide. 
»The Civic Engagement Research Group’s collection of videos highlight various civic learning and civic media literacy approaches in a range of classrooms. 
»The Digital Civics Toolkit is a collection of resources for educators to support youth in exploring civic opportunities of digital life. 
»Chicago Public Schools’ Student Voice Committees are described in detail. 
»The Teaching for Democracy Alliance is a collection of civic education organizations working jointly to support K-12 teachers and administrators on practical democracy lessons, including ways to teach about elections and voting. 
»“High Quality Civic Education: What Is It and Who Gets It?” by Joseph Kahne and Ellen Middaugh, Social Education, January/February 2008. The article describes a model of high-quality civic education and the research base that supports it. 
»The Leveraging Equity and Access in Democratic Education initiative, co-managed by UCLA and UC Riverside, is a resource center for school districts on quality civic learning opportunities.