<< The Body Politic

Getting Civics Right

Thursday, November 6th, 2014

Getting Civics Right: What it Would Take to Learn What Works and What Doesn’t in Citizenship Education

By David E. Campbell
(November 6, 2014)

Download Full Report as PDF

This  For more information about AEI’s Program on American Citizenship, visit www.citizenship-aei.org.

Key Points:

  • Citizenship education has a research base too small to adequately inform policymakers of what does and doesn’t work in the classroom.
  • The focus should be on the state as a unit of analysis to determine how changes made at the state level affect individual districts, schools, and classrooms.
  • For the content of civic education, researchers should examine attitudes, behavior, and knowledge to determine civic outputs.
  • Research methods should include large, representative samples of adolescents on the state and national levels, with repeated interviews with the same subjects over time.

Citizenship education among American youth ought to be studied more systematically, more thoroughly, and with greater resources than it is at present. With that premise, my objective is to outline what a full-fledged study of civic education among US high school students would require.

My particular focus in this report is on research that can inform policymakers about what public policies affect the quality of civic education. This specific focus is warranted because, to date, civic education receives far more lip service than meaningful attention within the education policy community—for instance, the US did not participate in the 2009 International Civic and Citizenship Education Study, a study comparable to international comparisons of math and reading (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study and Program for International Student Assessment). Furthermore, the NAEP civics exam receives far less funding than other subjects, and in 2013, the Department of Education “indefinitely postponed” funding for the 4th and 12th grade NAEP civics exam.

While a small group of scholars have made herculean efforts to study civic education with empirical rigor, they have made relatively little headway, especially when compared to subjects such as math and reading. And with a small research base, there is little to inform policymakers regarding what works (and what doesn’t) in civic education.

Simply put, there is much we do not know about the consequences of policies regarding civics. Does including civics among graduation requirements affect young people’s civic knowledge? Does the inclusion of civics among tested subjects in high-stakes exams help or hinder civic education? Do charter or magnet schools provide qualitatively different—whether better or worse—civic education than traditional public schools? These are the types of basic questions that we do not yet know how to answer.

In comparison to civics, the explosion of research into math and reading has been due in large part to the availability of high-quality data. To be sure, the plethora of research does not always mean consensus about best practices, but at least the debates over both pedagogy and policy are informed by systematic data and not merely by anecdotes. Significantly, on some important questions, scholars have come to a consensus. A comparable investment into the infrastructure of civic education research—collecting high-fidelity data that is useful and accessible to scholars—would have a similar payoff.

First, I will discuss where scholars—and policymakers—should devote their attention when studying civic education. Second, I turn to what should be studied—that is, what areas of civic education should receive the highest priority. Last, I will discuss how civic education should be studied.

Read the full report.