Bridging the Democracy Divide (Why Civic Learning Matters, Part III)

by Shawn P. Healy, PhD, Civic Learning Scholar, Robert R. McCormick Foundation


Civic learning closes the civic empowerment gap, but research suggests that students of color and lower economic strata are less likely to experience these high-quality opportunities in school.

In a study of 2,500 California high school students, African-American students reported fewer civic-oriented government classes. Asian American and Latino students were less likely to experience an open classroom environment, and Latino students also had fewer service learning experiences.

These inequities also assumed a class-based dimension: students of higher socioeconomic status were more likely to report studying how laws are made, to participate in service activities, and to experience debates and panel discussions.

Unequal learning opportunities lead to a racial and socioeconomic civic achievement gap every bit as stark as those in reading and math. Across the last three iterations of the National Assessment of Education Progress in Civics among 12th graders, white and Asian students vastly outperform their African-American and Hispanic peers on measures of civic knowledge and skills. The same is true of students’ maternal educational attainment. Test scores rise in order for students whose mothers dropped out of high school through those that completed college.

These civic achievement gaps translate into participatory inequalities and related disparities in public policy outcomes. These disparities begin with voting, but widen when it comes to contacting public officials, service on a committee or as an officer in a group, or even taking consumer actions for political purposes.

Thankfully, research demonstrates that “demographics are not destiny,” and that universally-available, high quality, school-based civic learning opportunities can close the racial and socioeconomic empowerment gap that cripples our democracy.

A majority of K-12 students in Illinois are non-white, and similar percentages qualify for free or reduced lunch, the standard measure for poverty. Thanks to the new statewide civics course requirement, students of all races, ethnicities, and social classes will experience proven civic learning practices as we make definitive strides towards closing the participatory gap that plagues our democracy.

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