Theme Panel: How Education Does (or Does Not) Create Democratic Citizens

How Education Does (or Does Not) Create Democratic Citizens

Co-sponsored by Division 59: Education Politics and Policy
Created Panel

 (Discussant) Meira Levinson, Harvard University; (Discussant) Diana M. Owen, Georgetown University

Session Description:
This panel explores the role of schools in training democratic citizens. The papers explore different aspects of schooling, including the racial composition of the student body, whether the school is vocational or general, and the curriculum of civics education, to see which models best cultivate successful civic education. This panel relates to the APSA 2022 theme because it speaks to how we foster future political leaders and democratic citizens.


Engaged or Obedient?: Racially Differentiated Models of Democratic Education
Sarah Brown, University of Colorado Boulder; Tamar Malloy, University of Colorado Boulder

What role does the school play in the creation of citizens? Does the racial composition of a school affect the citizenship training students receive? Some theorists argue that schools in liberal democracies should be schools of equity and justice, where students learn to be engaged, participatory citizens (Allen 2016, Dewey 1916, Gutmann 1999, Laden 2013) Others contend that schools function primarily as disciplinary training grounds, producing future citizens who are docile workers and obedient members of society. (Bowles and Gintis 1976, Foucault 1977, Justice and Meares 2014) In this paper, we suggest that both models may exist, but on a racially-differentiated spectrum. To explore this hypothesis, we build an original dataset of school handbooks from a national sample of over 10% of U.S. public charter schools (n=862). Using Text as Data methods, we build a dictionary of terms related to “citizenship” in order to extract handbook passages where the schools discuss the concept. Descriptively, we find differences in the frequency with which terms appear in schools comprised of a predominantly white student body and schools where students are predominantly Black or Hispanic. Additionally, we code the handbook passages for the presence or absence of text that suggests normative values of democratic citizenship to discern whether schools communicate citizenship as active and engaged participation, or punitive obedience. Using this data, we claim that school handbooks in schools with a majority white student body approach the concept of citizenship differently from those with a majority Black or Hispanic student body. Our data shows that racial differentiation in U.S. schools extends to different models of citizenship education, and, relatedly, to different understandings of democratic participation. While school handbooks in majority-White schools suggest an engaged, participatory model of citizenship, handbooks in majority-minority schools suggest a punitive, obedient model of citizenship. We then return to the theoretical foundations of the project, to explore the potential impacts of racial differentiation on equity, deliberation, and participation.

Know Local: Rethinking Civic Education for Civic Competence
Abigail Dym, University of Pennsylvania

Civic education has resurfaced in our national dialogue as a potential salve to democratic backsliding and an essential tool for building non-partisan and competent democratic citizens. We need rigorous political science research to understand what is currently happening in the civic education landscape to inform how we can leverage innovative curricula to help young people feel knowledgeable, confident, and motivated to participate in U.S. democracy. This project engages youth participatory action research, focus groups, and a student survey with an embedded RCT to contribute to this democratic imperative. First, focus groups from summer and fall 2021 reveal high school students prefer to learn about local than national political content and believe more of it in their civics classes would motivate them to engage in politics. However, a pilot with a youth-generated political knowledge survey that includes local and national knowledge questions reveals students have low knowledge about broad traditional political facts and in fact know less about local than national politics, a likely product of nationalized K-12 curricula and social media, where many students encounter political learning. This is concerning given student claims that they are more motivated to be participatory when their political learning focuses on local politics and feels relevant to their daily lives. Second, between February and June 2022 over 1000 high school students in the School District of Philadelphia will take a political knowledge survey that includes the piloted local and national knowledge questions. Before taking the survey, students will also randomly receive one of four treatments. Each treatment is a short article that is identical except for the topic: either local political content that is directly relevant to student lives (schools and reopening during COVID in Philadelphia), local and less relevant (workforce mask mandates in Philadelphia), national and relevant (schools and reopening during COVID in the U.S.), or national and less relevant (workforce mask mandates in the U.S.). This RCT will test the impact of content on short-term factual recall, measured by specific test questions embedded in the survey. I hypothesize students are more likely to recall local and relevant information when they receive the first treatment, and that regardless of treatment students will have higher national knowledge scores on average, underscoring a disconnect between increasingly nationalized curricula and student demand for more local learning. Key outcomes will also include the relationship between knowledge scores, student demographics, political self-efficacy, trust in government, and civic engagement. This study has implications for research on political knowledge and participation as well as education policy initiatives to re-center schools as key sites of political socialization and civic learning that can help develop knowledgeable and engaged citizens.

The Causal Effect of General or Vocational Upper Secondary Education on Turnout
Marcus Österman, Uppsala University

This paper contributes to the extensive literature on the relationship between education and political participation by examining the impact of different types of education rather than the length of education, which has been the main area of interest in previous research. Furthermore, we focus on the considerably less studied upper secondary level of the education system that today in practice forms the minimum level of education in advanced economies. In most countries, this educational level consists of several different tracks that mainly vary in whether they prepare the students for further academic studies with a focus on academic skills, or rather prepare the students directly for the labour market. Against this background, we ask whether attending a general education programme, with mostly academic courses, positively affects political participation compared to attending a vocational programme, which rather puts emphasis on occupational specific skills. Empirically we study this question using Swedish population register data on the choice of upper secondary education and turnout in general elections. By exploiting the admission process with a regression discontinuity design, we are able to avoid selection bias related to the choice of different programmes and get good support for causal inference. This is an important contribution compared to most earlier research that has relied on correlational evidence and, thus, is unable to separate the effect of the education programme from the students’ different backgrounds.

The Leader in Me: Leadership Programs vs. Civic Education in American Schools
Christie L. Maloyed, University of Louisiana at Lafayette

Many American states have mandated students take an American Government or Civics course to graduate high school. Typically, these courses focus on the structures of political institutions, historical figures, important dates, and a handful of key political concepts. Importantly, they rarely focus on the essential skills or habits necessary to function as a democratic citizen. To the extent that students encounter such lessons, it’s through extracurricular or supplemental leadership programs. One popular example of such leadership programs is Stephen Covey’s Leader in Me curricula. Adapted from his popular self-help work, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Covey’s program has been adopted as an addition to – or even a replacement for – civics curricula and supported by prominent community organizations like the United Way. I trace the contemporary proliferation of both mandates for government courses as well as supplemental leadership programs. Drawing from political theory and philosophy of education, the paper offers a critical analysis of the differences between the leadership skills promulgated in programs like Covey’s and contrasts those with civic habits. I argue the former approach provides an impoverished understanding of the obligations of democratic citizenship. By contrast, civic habits offer a more community-oriented and democratic approach to civic education.