The Catholic University of America
Sep 15 2011

Poverty, Civic Education, and Democracy

Posted by James Youniss at 12:41 PM
- Categories: Education | Government & Civil Society

I happen to be working on a paper dealing with strategies that enhance civic education. There are extensive data showing that the quality of civic education differs according to the population being served. For example, in California, schools serving low income, “disadvantaged” students, tend not to have supplements to civics classes such as service, simulations, or discussions, whereas schools serving higher income students have these supplements (Kahne and Middaugh, 2009). Across the country, schools serving disadvantaged students tend not to have student governments and if they have them, student governments tend not to have a voice in policy (McFarland and Starrmans, 2009).

Recently published data on civic knowledge (National Assessment of Educational Progress, 2010) demonstrate that the failure to use enriching practices is a lost opportunity. Disadvantaged students, defined here as being eligible for free lunches, benefit greatly when their teachers use discussion of the material being studied. 8th and 12th graders whose teachers say that they never or only a few times a year used discussion, scored 125 and 126, respectively, on the NAEP test. Their peers in classes where teachers used discussion on a regular basis, scored 155 and 152, respectively. (These are my calculations using the on-line data provided for NAEP by the National Center for Education Statistics.) The differences are statistically significant and indicate that disadvantaged students benefit from enriched civic education classes. (Advantaged students benefitted as well.)

A similar case can be made regarding supplementing civics classes with directed service on community problems, what Harry Boyte has called Public Work or what in religious parlance can be termed Social Justice (Youniss and Yates, 1997).  National data show large differences in opportunities for service between disadvantaged and wealthier students, with the latter having almost twice the opportunity (Spring, Dietz, and Grimm, 2007). Yet we know that minority urban students gain in civic awareness and engagement from well-designed public work/social justice service (Youniss and Yates, 1997).

Further, I note that voting rates of young adults vary markedly between those who stop schooling at high school and those who go on to college. College oriented youth vote at twice the rate of high school only youth (Flanagan, Levine, and Settersten, 2009). This differential rate is likely due to several factors, civics classes being only one. Consider the fact that young adults who did service in high school, whether voluntarily or as part of their civic instruction, were 14 % more likely to vote 8 years after high school than their peers who had done no service (Hart, et al., 2007).

I think that these data make a compelling case for the need for improved civic education in schools serving students most likely to fall into the poverty ranks. We know that these students benefit from enriched civic education. We know less why the schools which serve them do not provide the requisite opportunities. This is negative enough in its implications: Indifferent civic education seems to breed indifferent citizens. But consider further that a potential downward cycle is being perpetuated. “I am poor; I don’t vote, therefore, my interests are not taken into account. Because my interests are not respected, I will not vote. And so it goes until the distribution of voters across incomes becomes distorted and as a consequence, our democracy is threatened.


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