Students Primarily Experience Civic Learning Opportunities in Social Science and English Courses at Democracy Schools; Cross-Curricular Applications Abound

by Shawn P. Healy, PhD, Democracy Program Director

My previous analysis of 2019 student survey data from a pilot group of eleven Illinois Democracy Schools (N=3,904 students) touched on the extent to which students experienced civic learning opportunities and school cultures aligned with a “lived civics” framework and media literacy opportunities and outcomes. As the Democracy Schools Network convenes this week for the tenth consecutive year with a theme of ‘Every Teacher is a Civics Teacher: Best Practices for Civic Learning and Organizational Supports in Schools,” I am returning to 2019 student survey data to explore the extent to which civic learning is threaded across the curriculum at selected Democracy Schools.

Civic learning’s natural home is the social sciences and 93% of students surveyed said they learned about civics content in these courses, but English also ranks perennially high, with nearly 63% of students experiencing civics content here, too (see Figure 1 below). The drop-off in other subject areas is steep, with nearly three-in-ten students identifying civics content in world language courses and 18% in science courses, but less than ten percent of art/music, physical education, and math included civics content. There is limited variation in exposure to civics content by students’ race/ethnicity, although Black and Latinx students reported below average exposure in social science and English courses, the category leaders.

Figure 1: In which classes have you learned about
civic content (i.e, the US system of government and how it works)?

The data broke down similarly in measuring other proven civic learning practices across the curriculum, including discussions of current and controversial issues, civic role-playing activities, and service learning, with a majority of students experiencing these practices in the social sciences (82%, 73%, and 61%, respectively), but among other subjects, only English/Language Arts demonstrated a majority for controversial issues discussions (65%). Moreover, there is evidence of a civic opportunity gap for Black and Latinx students when it comes to civic role-playing in social science courses and Latinx students in English courses (see Figure 2 below).

Figure 2: In which classes did you participate in civic role-playing
activities (i.e, political leader or politician)?

In sum, there are numerous opportunities for Democracy Schools to further integrate civic learning opportunities across the curriculum, particularly beyond social science and English. Given that the latter two subjects offer the bulk of current civic learning opportunities, teachers and schools should also make stronger commitments to ensure they are offered equitably to students of all races and ethnicities. And schools statewide should adopt the mantra that students’ civic development is not the sole responsibility of the social studies.

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