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High School Civic Education

Textbook Designs Matter in Fostering Civic Understanding and Engagement

A quartet of scholars completed new research on textbook design. CIRCLE Working Paper 54: Improving Textbooks as a Way to Foster Civic Understanding and Engagement by Marilyn Chambliss, Wendy Richardson, Judith Torney-Purta, and Britt Wilkenfeld, describes a recent study in which tenth graders who had parent permission were randomly assigned to read one of three types of passages about direct and representative democracy. After reading, all students responded to the same tasks to measure their understanding and their motivation to engage in civic-related activities. Students came from regular classes in two middle class high schools, one from a West Coast state and the other from a state in the Mid-Atlantic region. The authors chose to collect data on two sides of the country, believing that often, research conducted in one location has been generalized too widely.

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High School Civic Engagement Activities Produce Academic Benefits

New CIRCLE research by Professors Alberto Dávila and Marie T. Mora suggests that participation in voluntary community service, service-learning, and student government activities during the high school years enhance academic achievement. In two new CIRCLE Working Papers Dávila and Mora, using data from the National Educational Longitudinal Study of 1988 (NELS), find that those civic engagement activities raise the odds of graduation from college and improve high school students' progress in reading, math, science and history. For example, they estimate that service experiences—when required as part of high school courses—raise the odds of graduation from college by 22 percentage points.

While the impact appears to be universally positive, different types of activities affect demographic groups in distinct ways. Young men, for instance, appear to make greater academic gains when they participate in service activities : they are 29 percentage points more likely to graduate from college on time if they have engaged in service to fulfill a class requirement during high school, controlling for the other factors measured in NELS. Student government activities seem to produce the strongest effects on female students.

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Quick Facts on K-12 Civic Education

See the following fact sheets for short summaries on a variety of topics related to civic education:

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Teaching Civics During Political Events Shows Promising Results

Research on the Kids Voting USA program suggests that student civic growth can occur in spurts, especially around big political events such as elections. The research, summarized in CIRCLE Working Paper 49: Experiments in Political Socialization: Kids Voting USA as a Model for Civic Education Reform , provides eight recommendations for teaching civics. Three Kids Voting curriculum activities showed promising results for long-term civic development: frequent classroom discussion about election issues, teacher encouragement of opinion expression, and student participation in get-out-the-vote efforts. The research is based on a three-year panel study by Michael McDevitt and Spiro Kiousis. To learn more, download

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New Resources Available for Measuring Effects of K-12 Civic Education Programs

Two CIRCLE Working Papers contain assessment tools for measuring the effects of civic education programs. The first Working Paper (#47), “Developing Indicators and Measures of Civic Outcomes for Elementary School Students,” contains two sets of instruments designed to be used at the elementary school level. The measures include a student survey of civic knowledge, skills and attitudes and a set of corresponding grade level observation checklists of student skills and behaviors . The tools were created by Bernadette Chi of the East Bay Conservation Corps, JoAnn Jastrzab of Abt Associates Inc., and Alan Melchoir of the Center for Youth and Communities at the Heller School , Brandeis University.

The second Working Paper (#48), entitled “Assessing School Citizenship Education Climate: Implications for the Social Studies,” focuses on the middle- and upper-grade levels. It presents the School Citizenship Education Climate Assessment —a self-assessment tool developed to help schools evaluate their citizenship education strategies and policies—and examines its implications for social studies classes. The tool was created for the Education Commission of the States (ECS) by Gary Homana, Carolyn Barber and Judith Torney-Purta of the University of Maryland and is available at  from here . The ECS Web site also contains a set of items for assessing outcomes of civic education in the areas of knowledge, skills, and dispositions across the elementary, middle, and high school grades.

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CIRCLE Hosts Discussion: "Alternatives to Large, Traditional High Schools: Can They Enhance Students' Preparation for Work, College, and Democracy?"

On July 6, 2005 CIRCLE convened an all-day meeting to discuss the civic and academic outcomes of small school reform. Some education leaders are arguing that traditional, large, omni-purpose, relatively anonymous high schools should be transformed into institutions of smaller size, with more coherent focus, more student participation, and more connections to the surrounding community. Students would then have more choice about which school to attend, but fewer choices about their classes and co-curricular activities once they enroll. Proponents hope that these schools will graduate a much higher proportion of their students and prepare their graduates better for school and college. It is also possible that they will produce better civic outcomes.

On July 6, policymakers, school administrators, teachers, and students all shared their perspectives on the small schools movement.
The meeting was held at the National Press Club and covered by C-SPAN.

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Civic Mission of Schools

Carnegie Corporation of New York and CIRCLE have issued a major report on civic education entitled The Civic Mission of Schools. This report summarizes the evidence in favor of civic education in k-12 schools; analyzes trends in political and civic engagement; identifies promising approaches to civic education; and offers recommendations to educators, policymakers, funders, researchers, and others. It was written by 57 authors/endorsers, including individual scholars and practitioners and representatives of such organizations as the American Federation of Teachers, American Political Science Association, American Bar Association, Center for Civic Education, National Conference of the Social Studies, and Education Commission of the States. Please visit www.civicmissionofschools.org to learn more about the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools.

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Civic Education for Young People Enrolled in the Adult Literacy System

Today more than 1 million young people (ages 16 to 24) enroll in adult literacy programs each year. A new CIRCLE Working Paper by Melanie Daniels and Marilyn Gillespie of SRI International looks into the type of civic education young people receive through adult literacy programs. The paper finds that much like the K-12 education system, the adult literacy system faces several barriers in trying to implement civic education. First, much of the funding available is tied to performance on standardized tests and at this time civics is not part of the testing and funding system. With limited resources, teachers are often forced to teach what is tested. Second, there is a need for professional development activities that allow teachers to learn more about how to teach civics-related knowledge and skills to youth.

The research is based on an online survey of over 400 programs in 46 states as well as a literature review on the adult literacy system. While the survey is not representative of the entire adult literacy system, it does provide some interesting information about the type of civic education that students receive. The report includes recommendations for researchers, policy makers and practitioners on ways to enhance civic education. Finally the report provides a list of resources for programs interested in providing civic education.

Below are links to several documents on the topic. Please click on the title to download:

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The Benefits of Open Discussion in Social Studies Classrooms

“Circle Working Paper 28: Voice in the Classroom” by David Campbell looks at whether open classroom environments facilitate adolescents’ civic development. The report suggests that the amount of time students spend in social studies classes does indeed correlate with their civic knowledge and their predictions for future civic engagement. However, the degree to which political and social issues are discussed openly and respectfully has a greater impact on civic proficiency than the frequency of social studies class.

In addition, it seems that high school students who attend racially diverse schools are less likely to report open classrooms; it appears that discussions of diverse or controversial opinions are more likely to be encouraged in racially homogenous classrooms. Campbell bases his analysis on data from the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement or IEA Civic Education Study (CES).
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How Schools and Families Can Work Together to Promote Civic Empowerment

Two research reports by Michael McDevitt and Spiro Kiousis provide preliminary findings from an ongoing evaluation of Kids Voting USA, an interactive civics curriculum taught during election campaigns in 39 states. The reports offer a comprehensive explanation of how Kids Voting USA, an interactive civics curriculum, brings together two powerful institutions-schools and families- to address generational declines in political aptitude.
Important findings include:

-Frequent classroom discussion about election issues and asking others to vote had a positive influence on students' media use, information processing, attitude formation, discussion skills, and civic behaviors.
- These effects seem to be lasting. A follow-up questionnaire given a year after the students completed the program, showed Kids Voting curriculum influence in the areas of news media use, discussion, cognition, opinion formation, and civic participation.
-In addition to pinpointing the effects of different curriculum components, the study is the first to document systematic evidence that the Kids Voting program promotes equality of civic development among students from different racial and ethnic backgrounds.

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Including Politics and Elections in Civics Classes

A CIRCLE working paper shows emphasizing elections in civics classes has a positive impact on political knowledge. The research was conducted by Kenneth S. Stroupe, Jr. and Larry J. Sabato of the University of Virginia Center for Politics and compares classes that used the National Youth Leadership Initiative (YLI) curriculum and a control group of similar classes that did not. The study found that YLI programs have substantial, positive effects on students' levels of political knowledge and, to a lesser degree, some positive effects on students' political efficacy, pride in politics, and propensity for future political participation. Findings also suggest that increasing the amount of time students spend participating in YLI mock elections can have a positive impact on students' attitudes and behaviors.

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Civic Knowledge and Skills: How U.S. Students Measure Up

A CIRCLE Fact Sheet provides information about U.S. student civic knowledge and skills. The Fact Sheet uses data from the IEA Civic Education Study, a survey of 90,000 14-year old which asked about the civic-related topics they had studied and about their expectations for political and civic participation. The Fact Sheet offers comparisons of the performance of students in the United States to those in 27 other democratic countries.
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What is Being Taught in Today's Civics Classes

A CIRCLE Fact Sheet "Themes Emphasized in Social Studies and Civics Classes: New Evidence" reports survey data on youth perceptions of what is commonly taught in Civics, Government and U.S. History classes. 45% of 15-25 year old respondents said that the topic most emphasized in their classes was "the Constitution or the U.S. system of government and how it works." This was followed by "great American heroes & the virtues of the American system of government" at 30%. The third highest response was "wars and military battles", identified by 25% of respondents. A small percentage (11%) said that their classes emphasized "problems facing the country today" and only 9% said themes of "racism and other forms of injustice in the American system" were emphasized.

Another CIRCLE Fact Sheet "Civics Curriculum & Civic Skills: Recent Evidence" explores whether civics education classes in schools actually increase students' civic skills and civic knowledge. In general, young people who report having taken civics or government courses in school also report that they possess more civic skills than students who have not studied civics. This relationship does not prove that classes affect skills. However, it is suggestive evidence, especially in connection with other studies and data sources that indicate positive effects from civics classes.

Students must take a high school government or civics course in 29 states. For other information on current requirements and guidelines, please see this page on the NACE site.

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Effects of Civics Instruction and Participation in Student Government and Community Service

A new study by John Phillips found the effects of local service learning to be small and elusive. In one experiment, he measures whether students who engage in clubs have different levels of civic knowledge and attitudes. Participation had little impact on civic knowledge and attitudes. Results suggest that 5 more attendances in school clubs result in one more question answered correctly on a 9-item civics exam and a half-point increase in political understanding (measure on a 4-point scale).

In another experiment, he found that students who participate in a 1-hour seminar on voting procedures and neighborhood activism showed no statistically significant relationship between the lessons from the seminar and subsequent changes in civic knowledge, attitudes, or behavior.

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Policies on Civic Education

A series of products by the Education Commission of the States (ECS) National Center for Learning and Citizenship (NCLC) reveals that wide variation exists in the extent to which state policies address citizenship education. Forty-one states’ statutes specifically provide for the teaching of social studies, which could include government, civics and/or citizenship. While 39 states require a course or credits in government or civics for high school graduation, only five of those states require students to pass an exit exam that includes social studies to graduate (Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, New Mexico and New York).

The series includes a 50-state, interactive Web database that gives users a picture of where and how state policy supports citizenship education. It also includes a policy brief that outlines the importance of citizenship education, reviews existing state policies and actions, and gives policymakers questions to ponder and resources to turn to for help.

Federal policies for civic education and service are listed in a separate CIRCLE fact sheet.

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Prof. Judith Torney-Purta's CIRCLE-funded work on 14-year-olds around the world will help us to assess the impact of high school civic education.

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A CIRCLE-sponsored survey found that young people strongly favor required government and civics classes in high school and middle school, but do not favor community-service requirements. Please click here for data and analysis.

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This summary of research by Child Trends finds: "Engaging youth in positive citizenship activities has been the most heavily studied area of positive citizenship antecedents. Overall, research has demonstrated relatively strong associations between being engaged in civic activities in high school and later civic involvement."

Please see also:

  • Constance A. Flanagan and Nakesha Faison, "Youth Civic Development: Implications of Research for Social Policy and Programs," Social Policy Report. 2001. vol. 15, no. 1, pp. 3-16.

  • William A. Galston, "Political Knowledge, Political Engagement, and Civic Education," reprinted with permission from the Annual Review of Political Science, vol. 4, © 2001 Annual Reviews. www.AnnualReviews.org.
  • Judith Torney-Purta, Carole L. Hahn, and Jo-Ann Amadeo, "Principles of Subject Specific Instruction in Education for Citizenship," in Jere Brophy, ed., Subject-Specific Instructional Methods and Activities (Advances in Research on Teaching, vol. 8), Elsevier Science Inc., 2001, pp. 373-410.
  • James W. Skillen, with Jerry S. Herbert and Joshua Good, At a Political Crossroads: Christian Civic Education and the Future of the American Polity, A Report from the Saints and Citizens Project (2001)