Civic Learning Prepares Students for College and Careers (Why Civic Learning Matters, Part IV)

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


I’ve already established why civic learning matters and its fostering of students’ civic development. Moreover, when provided equitably, civic learning helps close the civic empowerment gap. In today’s fourth and final post on this subject, I’ll demonstrate how civic learning builds 21st Century competencies, improves school climate, and reduces the school drop-out rate.

 Schools have a historic civic mission, but they must also prepare students for college and careers. The combination of traditional and student-centered classroom-based civic learning opportunities builds 21st Century competencies transferable to success in higher education and professional careers like creativity, critical thinking, economic knowledge, global awareness, media literacy, and working collaboratively with peers.

Schools must not merely teach democracy. They are themselves mini-polities and should practice democracy in their day-to-day governance. Civic learning helps improve school climate by teaching the importance of community, respectful dialogue, teamwork, and diversity. The benefits of sustained, positive school climate transcend civic learning. Positive school climate promotes students’ social-emotional development, which in turn leads to cognitive gains and greater student achievement across subject areas (National School Climate Council, 2007; Cohen, 2006).

Finally, while the number of students who graduate from high school on time is at a four-decade high, more than two-in-ten students still fail to complete high school in four years. The problem is more pronounced for students of color, with one-third of African-American and three-in-ten Hispanic students failing to meet this threshold.

Bridgeland et al (2006) interviewed high school drop-outs, ages 16-25, and concluded that “…while some students drop out because of significant academic challenges, most dropouts are students who could have, and believe they could have, succeeded in school." Many recommended making school more interesting, and suggested that if schools offered experiential civic learning opportunities like service learning and simulations, linked to the “real world,” it would have improved their chances of graduating.

The case for school-based civic learning closes with a unanimous verdict in its favor. Its return in Illinois will help resuscitate our civic health and restore both faith in and functioning of our governmental institutions.

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