Students in Civics Courses Building Skills, Becoming More Involved in Their Communities

by Shawn P. Healy, PhD, Democracy Program Director

This post represents the third and final analysis of year two evaluation data provided by the Center for Information Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) on our #CivicsIsBack Campaign in Illinois to support implementation of the new high school civics course and K-12 social studies standards. The first piece provided a broad overview of the findings, and the second did a deep dive on the results of our Illinois Civics Teacher Mentor program. This concluding post will further analyze the student outcomes data touched upon in the preliminary piece.

More than 3,000 Illinois high school students completed surveys during the 2018-2019 school year measuring their exposure to proven civic learning practices and a stand-alone civics course, along with related civic dispositions and behaviors. They attended schools affiliated with teacher mentors and span from the suburbs of Chicago and St. Louis to rural communities throughout Central and Southern Illinois. And they are broadly representative of the state’s student population, skewing slightly more white (54% white, 24% Latino, 21% Black, 11% multiracial, 3% Asian, and 2% American Indian/ Alaskan Native).

More than three-quarters of survey participants reported taking a social studies course “…that was completely about how the government works and (their) role in participating in public decisions and discussions.” These students were significantly more likely to report discussing current events and controversial issues, including issues they care about personally, and also to consider multiple viewpoints with respect to these issues (see graph below).

Students in civics courses also reported significantly more exposure to simulations (65% to 46%), greater participation in a class project to improve their school or community (66% to 52%), and exposure to instruction on government institutions (95% to 82%) and how public decisions are made with respect to these structures (92% to 76%).

Civics course participants also demonstrated strong information literacy skills, proving more able to determine the trustworthiness of a news source (92% to 88%), to identify political bias in online information (89% to 81%), and to create or share something online related to a social issue (48% to 36%).

Students in civics classes exhibited stronger civic values, including a responsibility to be concerned about state and local issues, to believe that they can make a difference in their communities, and to exhibit trust in fellow community members (see graph below).

Not only did students in civics courses feel more knowledgeable about and skillful in participating in politics (62% to 46%), but they are much more likely to report engagement in a range of civic behaviors:
  • Helping to make their city or town a better place for people to live (38% vs. 27%).
  • Helping out at their place of worship (37% vs. 30%).
  • Helping a neighbor (54% vs. 44%).
  • Helping out at their school (62% vs. 54%).
  • Volunteering their time (at a hospital, day care, etc.; 37% vs. 30%).
  • Discussing politics or public issues online (36% vs. 30%).
  • Serving as a leader in a group or organization (50% vs. 40%).
  • Participating in student government (22% vs. 15%).
  • Working to solve problems in their school or community (38% vs. 30%).
These results, and a final data point demonstrating that students in civics courses were more likely to cooperate with others to solve a community problem (66% to 55%), are heartening given earlier findings that young Illinoisans ranked in the bottom ten among fifty states and the District of Columbia on measures of social capital like exchanging favors with neighbors and working with them to solve community problems. It affirms our fundamental belief that the long-term solution to Illinois’ civic health lies in preparing young people for informed, effective, and lifelong participation in our democracy.

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