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Developing Citizens: The Impact of Civic Learning Opportunities on Students’ Commitment to Civic Participation

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This study of 4,057 students from 52 high schools in Chicago finds that a set of specific kinds of civic learning opportunities fosters notable improvements in students’ commitments to civic participation. The study controls for demographic factors, preexisting civic commitments, and academic test scores. Prior large-scale studies that found limited impact from school-based civic education often did not focus on the content and style of the curriculum and instruction. Discussing civic and political issues with one’s parents, extracurricular activities other than sports, and living in a civically responsive neighborhood also appear to meaningfully support this goal. Other school characteristics appear less influential.
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American Educational Research Journal
September 2008, Vol. 45, No. 3, pp. 738-766
Developing Citizens: The Impact
of Civic Learning Opportunities
on Students’ Commitment
to Civic Participation
Joseph E. Kahne
Mills College
Susan E. Sporte
University of Chicago
2
Abstract
This study of 4,057 students from 52 high schools in Chicago finds that a
set of specific civic learning opportunities fosters notable improvements in
students commitments to civic participation.. The study controls for
demographic factors, pre-existing civic commitments, and academic test
scores. Prior large scale studies that found limited impact from school-based
civic education often did not focus on the content and style of the curriculum
and instruction. Discussing civic and political issues with one’s parents,
extracurricular activities other than sports, and living in a civically responsive
neighborhood also appear to meaningfully support this goal. Other school
characteristics appear less influential.
Civic Learning Opportunities and Civic Commitments
3
Although the preparation of citizens is a stated goal of many schools’
mission statements and a primary concern of many citizens, knowledge of
whether and how schools actually fulfill the democratic aims of education
remains quite limited (Galston, 2001; Rose & Gallup, 2000). Can high schools
promote the kinds of civic commitments that would help to sustain a
democratic society? In particular, can educators in classrooms help support
the development of commitments to civic participation among low-income
students and students of color? This study of public high school students in
Chicago speaks directly to these questions.
Historically, the democratic aims of education have been a primary
rationale for public schooling. This focus faded in recent decades spurred, in
part, by doubts raised in the 60’s and 70’s that what happened in high schools
influenced student civic and political commitments (most notably, Langton &
Jennings, 1968) and, more recently, by growing pressure to focus on reading
and math in order to raise test scores. For example, a recently completed study
by the Center on Education Policy (2006) found that 71% of districts reported
cutting back time on other subjects to make more space for reading and math
instruction. Social studies was the part of the curriculum that was most
frequently cited as the place where these reductions occurred.
The Need for Increased and More Equitable
Levels of Civic Participation
Some reformers, scholars, and foundation leaders are now looking for
ways to reassert the democratic purposes of schooling (Gibson & Levine,
2003). Those promoting democratic priorities want schools to develop the
skills and commitments students need in order to be concerned for the well
being of others. They also want schools to teach students how government
works and how they can work with others on solutions to community
problems. This focus reflects concern for the health of American democracy.
Numerous studies have found that levels of civic engagement in the United
States are lower than desirable, particularly among youth (Galston, 2001;
Macedo, et al., 2005; Putnam, 2000). Indeed, as a panel of experts convened
by the American Political Science Association recently found, “Citizens
participate in public affairs less frequently, with less knowledge, and
enthusiasm, in fewer venues, and less equitably than is healthy for a vibrant
democratic polity” (Macedo, et al. 2005, p 1).
Although it currently receives less attention than data regarding low levels
of civic and political participation, data regarding the inequitable nature of
civic participation and influence is also troubling. Low-income and less-
educated citizens, as well as recent immigrants and those less proficient in
English, are often under represented in the political process and have far less
voice. The votes of elected officials align with the preferences of higher income
citizens to a far greater degree than with the rest of the population (APSA Task
Force on Inequality and American Democracy, 2004; Stepick & Stepick, 2002).
Civic Learning Opportunities and Civic Commitments
4
Verba, Schlozman, and Brady (1995) found, for example, that family income
was a strong predictor of political voice. Bartels (2005) found that the policy
preferences of constituents at the 75th percentile of the income distribution
were almost three times as influential on the votes of U.S. Senators as the
policy preferences of those at the 25
th
percentile. Indeed, the policy preferences
of those in “the bottom third of the income distribution had no apparent
statistical effect on their senators’ roll call votes” (Bartels, p.1).
Clearly, educational institutions are limited in their ability to offset the
many ways social status and income can expand some individuals’ political
voice. However, studies indicate that the greater influence these individuals
wield is not simply driven by their money or status, but by their greater
participation at meetings, on boards, and in communication with officials
(Verba, Schlozman, & Brady, 1995; Nie, Junn, & Stehlik-Barry, 1996). If less
advantaged citizens increased their engagement in the civic and political arena,
their priorities would be more likely to get attention (Verba, 2003). Indeed,
given the fundamental importance of ensuring all citizens equal voice in a
democracy, it is important to deepen our understanding of whether providing
particular kinds of learning opportunities to relatively low-income students in
urban public schools can help promote higher and more equitable levels of
civic and political engagement.
Can Schools Promote Civic Outcomes?
Recent studies that testify to schools’ potential to advance civic and
political development along with indications that schools are not doing all that
they can to promote the democratic purposes of education have furthered
interest in civic education. Specifically, Niemi and Junn’s (1998) analysis of
data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress revealed that some
educational practices can increase students’ civic and political knowledge.
Michael Delli Carpini and Scott Keeter (1996) have shown that such knowledge
improves the quantity and quality of civic participation. In addition, large scale
studies such as the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational
Achievement’s (IEA) Civic Education Study of 14 year olds in 28 countries
found that certain curricular features were associated with civic outcomes such
as interest in politics the ability to apply knowledge accurately, and a range of
civic and political commitments (Torney-Purta, 2002; Torney-Purta, Amadeo,
& Richardson, 2007). These findings have been reinforced by a number of well
controlled studies of particular curricular initiatives (Kahne, Chi, & Middaugh,
2006; McDevitt & Kiousis, 2004; Metz & Youniss, 2005). Findings are not
universally positive, however. Some studies that control for prior
commitments find significant effects only for “high quality” service learning,
for example (Billig, Root, & Jesse, 2005; Melchior, 1998).
The importance of these positive findings regarding the impact of
curricular opportunities on students’ civic commitments is reinforced by
studies demonstrating that adolescents who express greater commitment to
civic and political engagement are more civically and politically engaged as
adults than adolescents who express less of a commitment to act (Ajzen, 2001;
Civic Learning Opportunities and Civic Commitments
5
Fishbein, Ajzen, and Hinkle, 1980; Oesterle, Johnson & Mortimer, 2004;
Theiss-Morse, 1993).
A Gap in Current Large Scale Studies of Civic Education
Most studies that link classroom practices to civic commitments are
relatively small scale in nature, focus on very specialized curricula, and
therefore are not easily generalized. Large scale surveys of high school students
demonstrate that students who report having particular experiences (debating
issues in class, being taught civic skills, undertaking service learning) are more
likely to also report being committed to and involved in various forms of civic
and political engagement (Keeter, Zukin, Andolina, & Jenkins, 2002; also see
Gibson & Levine, 2003; Torney-Purta, 2002; Verba, et al., 1995). However, the
lack of random assignment to these opportunities, the use of retrospective
accounts of educational experiences, and the lack of controls for prior civic
commitments and for a range of potentially relevant academic, demographic,
family, and community characteristics significantly limit the ability of these
larger surveys to demonstrate causal relationships. Some longitudinal data sets
such as the National Educational Longitudinal Survey (NELS) can be quite
helpful in this regard (Hart, Donnelly, Youniss, & Atkins, 2007), but these
surveys do not ask about many of the classroom opportunities that civic
educators believe are most important.
Finally, few empirical studies focus directly on the ways schools can and do
influence the development of the civic and political commitments of low-
income students and students of color. One study found that the gap in civic
knowledge and expected participation between Latino adolescents and non-
Latino students could be narrowed considerably by providing them with a
more open classroom climate and more time devoted to political topics and
discussion of democratic ideals (Torney-Purta, Barber & Wikenfeld, 2007).
Similarly, Youniss and Yates’ (1997) largely qualitative study of African
American youth attending a Catholic school in Washington, DC demonstrates
the ways that service learning experiences linked to meaningful classroom
opportunities for reflection and analysis can spur the development of students’
civic identity. These studies, while valuable, are subject to the same concerns
as those noted above.
Conceptual Frame: Commitments to Civic
Participation Among Adolescents
Robust participation in the life of the community (following community
issues, working on community problems, collective engagement with
government agencies) is a fundamentally important component of life in a
democratic society (Barber, 1984; Boyte & Kari, 1996; Dewey, 1916). Our
emphasis on these community-based forms of participation rather than on
more formal forms of political participation (working on campaigns, voting)
also stems from indications that younger students are less likely to participate
in formal political action and that it is important to include the broader civic
Civic Learning Opportunities and Civic Commitments
6
and political aspects of adolescents’ activities and beliefs (Flanagan & Gallay,
1995). Moreover, in most school settings, an emphasis on direct political
engagement would be quite controversial. In addition, there is evidence that
young people, and perhaps young people of color in particular, are more drawn
to community-based forms of participation than to participation in traditional
politics (Junn, 1999; Long, 2002; Sanchez-Jankowski, 2002).
Finally, it makes sense to study factors that may influence the development
of commitments to civic participation during late adolescence because late
adolescence is a critical period for development of sociopolitical orientations
(e.g., Erikson, 1968). As Yates and Youniss (1998) explain, adolescence is a
time when youth are thinking about and trying to anticipate their lives as
adults. They are working to understand who they are and how they will relate
to the broader society (also see, Atkins & Hart, 2003).
Below we highlight factors that research has shown to be the best
predictors of the development of young people’s commitments to civic
participation.
Classroom Civic Learning Opportunities
As noted earlier, scholars find strong associations between curricular
approaches such as the provision of an open classroom climate, engagement in
service learning, and the use of simulations on the one hand and students’ civic
commitments and capacities on the other (for example, Campbell, 2005; Hart
et al., 2007; Torney-Purta, Lehmann, Oswald, & Schulz, 2001; see Gibson &
Levine, 2003 for a review).
In understanding why these opportunities may foster civic outcomes, our
work has been heavily influenced by Youniss and Yates’ (1997)
conceptualization of factors that promote the development of a civic identity.
They identify three kinds of opportunities that can spur such development:
opportunities for agency and industry, for social relatedness, and for the
development of political-moral understandings (also see Watts, Armstrong,
Cartman, & Geussous) . Their study of youth doing work in soup kitchens as
part of a course shows how integrating community service and, by extension,
other civic learning opportunities into the curriculum can provide
opportunities for Agency (as students respond to social problems), Social
Relatedness (as students join with others to respond to a societal need) and
Political-Moral Understanding (as students reflect on and discuss the
relationship between what is and what should be).
School-based Supports for Students’
Academic and Social Development
We also examine whether students experience a strong sense of belonging
to or membership in their school community, whether teachers provide caring
and personalized support, whether peers are supportive of academic
achievement, and whether parents encourage and support academic
achievement. Currently, these attributes are most often viewed as a means of
Civic Learning Opportunities and Civic Commitments
7
supporting scholastic goals such as academic performance, and dropout rates
(Bryk & Schneider, 2002; Christenson & Thurlow, 2004; Wentzel, 1997; Zirkel,
forthcoming; also see Juvonen, 2006 for a broad review). If these social and
academic supports turn out to substantially support civic outcomes, then a
special focus on civic learning opportunities may not be needed. Indeed,
theorists like John Dewey (1900) and reformers such as Deborah Meier (1995,
2002) link experiencing a sense of belonging to a caring and supportive school
community with the development of commitments and capacities for
democratic ways of living. Systematic empirical studies have also found such
contexts to promote pro-social behaviors such as helping, caring, and
cooperating (Baumeister & Leary, 1995; Watson, Battistich, & Solomon,1997;
Wentzel, 1997,1998). Perhaps most directly, Flanagan, Cumsille, Sukhdeep,
and Gallay (2007) find a positive relationship between school and community
climates and civic commitments.
Extracurricular Activities
High school students’ participation in extracurricular experiences has been
linked through high quality longitudinal studies to later civic and political
engagement (McFarland & Thomas, 2006; Otto, 1976; Smith, 1999). Youth
organizational membership is believed to socialize young people to value and
pursue social ties while fostering exposure to organizational norms and
relevant political and social skills that make maintenance of these ties more
likely (Youniss & Yates, 1997).
Demographic Variables and Academic Capacities
Educational attainment and socioeconomic status are strongly related to
greater civic engagement (Nie et al., 1996; Verba et al., 1995). In addition,
gender, ethnic identity, and race are related to both civic commitments and to
forms of engagement (Burns, Schlozman & Verba, 2001; Marcelo, Lopez &
Kirby, 2007a), though the nature of these relationships are not uniform for
younger citizens (ages 15-25). In fact, the associations between race, ethnicity
and gender vary depending on the particular civic outcome in question girls,
for example, are generally more likely to volunteer than boys, but less likely to
be involved in electoral activities. White-American and African-American 18-
24 year olds are substantially more likely to vote than Asian-Americans and
Latinos, while Asian youth are the most likely to volunteer and Latinos (at least
in recent surveys) are the most likely to be involved in protests (CIRCLE, 2007;
Marcelo et al., 2007b). Although we do not necessarily expect uniform
relationships between demographic characteristics and civic outcomes, we will
consider and control for these factors.
Neighborhood and Family Civic Context
Neighborhood and family civic contexts play a significant role in the
development of civic orientations. Young people growing up in families and
Civic Learning Opportunities and Civic Commitments
8
communities that are civically active and financially better off tend to end up
more active themselves (Jennings, Stoker & Bowers, 2001; Nie et al.,1996;
Niemi & Sobieszek, 1977). Discussion between parents and youth revolving
around civic and political issues relates to a wide range of civic outcomes
(Andolina, Jenkins, Zukin & Keeter, 2003; Torney-Purta et al., 2001). And a
great deal of research has focused on the role social capital plays within
communities in fostering norms and social networks that make democracy
work more effectively (most notably, Putnam, 1993, 2000).
Research Questions
This study asks: What is the degree to which classroom based curricular
experiences that directly target civic goals contribute to the development of
commitments to civic participation among a population of largely low-income
students of color? Since some may wonder if prior commitments lead students
to pursue civically oriented learning opportunities, we also ask: Does the
relationship between curricular experience and adolescent civic commitment
persist if one controls for prior civic commitments? Finally, we ask: How do
classroom based curricular opportunities compare with other factors
(demographic characteristics, participation in extracurricular activities,
features of students’ neighborhoods and families, and qualities of students’
school experience) when it comes to promoting students’ commitments to civic
participation?
Method
Sample Characteristics
Data for this study come from surveys given every two years by the
Consortium on Chicago School Research as part of an agreement with the
Chicago Public Schools and from CPS administrative records. The survey is
part of an ongoing effort to study school contexts and practices and their
relationship to varied educational policies and student outcomes. Although the
survey includes some measures of classroom opportunities to develop
commitments to civic participation, as well as a measure that assesses civic
commitments, the prime focus of the survey is on school contexts and
curricular practices that are believed to foster academic outcomes such as test
scores and graduation rates.
We were mainly interested in survey and demographic data from 2005,
although we also wanted to control for students’ responses to selected
questions in 2003. We selected students who responded to the 2005 survey as
juniors and who also responded to the 2003 survey when most of them were
freshmen. We only selected students who had values on our main variables of
interest, which are described in the section below. Approximately 5% of our
pool did not have achievement test scores. Initial analyses indicated that this
variable was not linked to our outcome, so we imputed values for those
Civic Learning Opportunities and Civic Commitments
9
students at their respective school means so as not to lose the information
from all of the other data we had about them.
In addition to selecting students based on their available data, we also
selected schools, based in part on whether or not they participated in the 2003
survey. Although all regular high schools are invited to participate in the
survey, in each year approximately 35% of schools decline the invitation.
Table 1
Demographic Comparison Between Analytic Sample and all CPS Juniors
N
African
American
Latino
White
Asian
Free
lunch
PSAE
reading
CPS
22,688
50%
34%
11%
5%
78%
152
Analytic
sample
4,057
36%
42%
14%
8%
79%
156
Seventeen schools took the 2005 survey but not the 2003 survey. Each of these
schools had fewer than nine students in our student pool. These juniors had
attended a different school as freshmen. Because we were examining school
level effects along with individual level effects, we did not want to include
schools in our sample if the only students representing that school were
students who had recently transferred in. This decision removed 73 students
from our sample.
Our final analytic sample contained 4057 students representing 52
schools. Our sample has slightly higher test scores and a slightly different
demographic mix than the rest of CPS. In particular, African American
students are underrepresented. Since our goal is not to make statements about
the precise level of civic learning opportunities or outcomes in Chicago, but
rather about the ways varied factors shape civic commitments of students in
urban contexts, the differences between our analytic sample and Chicago’s
juniors does not strike us as a significant concern. Details regarding our
analytic sample and a comparison to all juniors in the Chicago Public Schools
are provided in Table 1.
Survey Measures
Our indicators from the survey are of two types: single items and multiple
item measures. Single items were expressed on a four-point scale, ranging in
some cases from “strongly disagree” to strongly agree” or in other cases from
“never” to “often.” Such individual items were treated as continuous after
initial analyses indicated that they were linearly related to the outcome.
The multi-item measures were created using Rasch analysis (Wright &
Masters, 1982). Rasch modeling puts all items on a hierarchical scale based on
the likelihood that they were endorsed” by respondents and puts all
respondent scores on the same scale based on the likelihood that the
Civic Learning Opportunities and Civic Commitments
10
respondent endorses each item in the suite of items (for an introductory
discussion of Rasch modeling, see Bond & Fox, 2001). Rasch measures are
scaled in logits; we transformed them to a 10-point scale for ease of
explanation.
This approach permits the creation of a latent variable such as
“commitment to civic participation” that is conceptually and empirically
cohesive. Items are assigned a difficulty level;” persons are assigned a score
indicating their position relative to all other respondents based on the
probability of responding in a particular way on each item. After items are
selected to meet a conceptual framework, the analysis helps uncover cases
where the theory and the empirical data disagree. In that case, the decision to
omit or include an item in the measure is based on consideration of the
theoretical importance of the item and on the fit statistic. The measures
described below that relate to civic commitments and civic learning
opportunities were developed specifically for inclusion in the Consortium’s
2003 and 2005 survey analyses. The other measures used in this analysis have
been part of the Consortium’s survey over time. In all cases we anchored the
responses of our students in this larger sample, after checking to make sure
their measure statistics did not differ significantly. Interested readers may
contact the authors for exact details on how these measures were created.
Details of all indicators, including survey measures and items can be found
in Appendix A. The list of items in each measure is provided, as well as its
reliability. Furthermore, the mean and frequency distribution of each
individual item used as a predictor is also provided.
Outcome Variable
In order to assess students’ commitment to civic participation, we
employed a five-item measure that was developed by Westheimer and Kahne
(2004). This measure aims to provide an indication of relatively robust civic
participation. That is, it asks whether students agree that in the next three
years they are likely to Work on a community project that involves a
government agency,” whether Being actively involved in community issues is
my responsibility,” whether “I have good ideas for programs or projects to help
solve problems in my community,” whether “Being concerned about state and
local issues is an important responsibility for everybody” and whether “In the
next three years, I expect to be involved in improving my community.” This
measure has been used in multiple studies and its psychometric properties
have been independently assessed (Flanagan, Syvertsen & Stout, 2007). We
initially developed the Rasch measure for this analysis in 2003 on a sample of
students in grades 8-10. It has an individual level reliability of .73. We
anchored our current sample on these values so the measure has the same
scoring over time.
Civic Learning Opportunities and Civic Commitments
11
Predictor Variables
We used survey responses to provide information related to classroom and
school characteristics as well as information related to parent and family
contexts. We used CPS administrative records to provide demographic and
achievement values.
Classroom civic learning opportunities. First, we developed a measure of
classroom based civic learning opportunities including: learning about
problems in society, learning about current events, studying issues about
which one cares, experiencing an open climate for classroom discussions of
social and political topics, hearing from civic role models, learning about ways
to improve the community, and working on service learning projects. This
measure was based on earlier work by Kahne and Westheimer (2003) and
drew on numerous other studies (e.g. Billig, 2000; Kahne et al., 2006; Niemi
& Junn, 1998; Smith, 1999; Torney-Purta, et al, 2001; Verba et al., 1995; see
Gibson & Levine, 2003 for a recent review).
Most of these curricular opportunities formed a single measure of
classroom civic learning opportunities. This measure has a reliability of .74.
Our indicator of service learning experiences did not fit within the broader
measure of civic learning opportunities, instead tapping into a slightly
different construct. For this reason, in the analysis (models 3 and 4) we
examine the significance of the overall measure and of the individual item
asking students about their service learning participation.
School supports for students’ academic and social development. In
addition, because we wanted to see whether the provision of opportunities
associated with promoting academic outcomes might also foster civic
outcomes, we included a set of indicators related to whether the school and
home context provided supports for students’ academic and social
development. Specifically, we assessed the impact of peer support for academic
achievement, whether students developed a sense of belonging or attachment
in relation to the school, teacher support, and parental press for academic
achievement. All these measures have reliabilities between .80 and .85. See
Appendix A for more details.
Extracurricular activities. The third type of school/educational variable
was an indicator of extracurricular participation. Students were asked how
often they participated in afterschool clubs, sponsored by the school or other
organizations, and how often they participated in sports on teams, either in or
out of school. We separated out the item that asked directly about sports
because several studies have found that participation in sports, unlike other
extracurricular activities, is often not related or is inversely related to civic
participation (Verba et al., 1995).
Civic Learning Opportunities and Civic Commitments
12
Demographic and individual characteristics. As controls for demographic
and individual characteristics of the students, we included data on gender,
racial and ethnic identification, and achievement test scores in reading, all of
which come from district records. Our measure of achievement (PSAE Reading
Score) is based on students’ eleventh grade score on the Prairie State
Achievement Exam (PSAE), administered about a month earlier than the
survey.
In addition to the above indicators, we also were interested in measures of
socioeconomic status. We considered three indicators: census-based
information linking students to social and economic characteristics of their
census block; self reports of level of mother’s education; and an individual-
level variable telling whether students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.
Because students’ reports of their parents’ education are often inaccurate
(Adelman, 1999, p. 35) we chose not to use it. We decided to use the free and
reduced-price lunch variable rather than the census block variable because the
lunch variable was tied directly to the individual’s family while the census
block information was tied to the census block in which the student lived. As a
check on this decision, we did the analyses separately using the census-based
variables as well and found no substantive difference in our results.
Neighborhood and family civic context. Our measure of neighborhood
social capital comes from the Consortium’s core battery of items, and has been
used since 1997. Consistent with James Coleman’s (1988) perspective on the
forms of social capital that would matter most for children, it assesses whether
adults in the neighborhood are civically engaged and socially networked, and
whether they monitor and support young people.
We also included a measure of the role parents and guardians play in
shaping studentscommitment to civic engagement. To assess the significance
of family context, we included a relatively standard item that asked how often
each young person discussed current events and politics with their parents or
guardians, since the role of discussion between parents and students has been
found, consistently, to be related to a range of civic outcomes (Andolina et al.,
2003; McIntosh, Hart & Youniss, 2006; Torney-Purta et al., 2001).
Past commitments. Finally, there is reason to expect that a students’ prior
commitments to civic participation is related to the commitments reported in
eleventh grade. Students with such prior commitments might be more likely to
pursue civic opportunities noted above or to recall that they occurred. For this
reason, we have included students’ score on the commitment to civic
participation measure (described above) from the prior administration of the
survey which occurred two years earlier in the spring of 2003.
Analysis
Student commitment to civic participation is shaped by a number of
individual and group experiences as described above. In particular, those
students taking the same classes or attending the same school experience the
Civic Learning Opportunities and Civic Commitments
13
same general environment, which may also be independently related to the
outcome of interest. Therefore, we used Hierarchical Linear Modeling, HLM,
(Raudenbush & Bryk, 2002) to explore the significance of both individual and
group characteristics. Ideally we would have nested students within
classrooms, since we are interested in the relationship between the learning
opportunities that occur in classrooms and students’ commitments to civic
participation. However, we were unable to do so for a variety of technical and
theoretical reasons. First, students likely receive these opportunities in
multiple courses/classrooms during a given year (e.g. English, social studies,
health etc.). Without knowing which class or classes they were reporting on, we
were not able to group students in any meaningful way at the classroom level.
Second, even if we had limited the responses to a particular subject, we would
have had too few students in most classes to make meaningful cross-classroom
comparisons.
Even though we were unable to group students in classrooms, we
hypothesized that some schools might focus more on promoting civic
development than others. Furthermore, because we assumed that students
potentially may have experienced these opportunities in more than one class, it
seemed important to see whether there was a school-level effect on
commitments to civic participation. We computed the intraclass correlations
using the fully unconditional model and discovered that only 2.2% of the
variation in students’ commitments to civic participation was between schools.
Even with this low variation, we decided that the nesting structure still had
advantages. First, we found schools did differ in their provision of civic
learning opportunities. In fact, 9% of the variability in civic learning
opportunities was between schools. In addition, as will be discussed below,
using HLM allows us to adjust for individual-level measurement error. And, as
discussed below, even with this low between-school variability in civic
commitments, we found statistically significant variability in the
opportunities/commitments slope.
Because our outcome is itself a measure, it is subject to measurement
error. We used three-level HLM, where Level 1 is a measurement model, Level
2 is the individual student level, and Level 3 is the school. The first level
represents variation among the item scores within each student. Ordinarily,
errors at Level 1 in a hierarchical model have a constant variance, but in this
case, each person-measure can have a different amount of measurement error.
To correct for this heteroscedasticity, we multiplied each side of the equation
by the inverse of each person’s standard error. The Level 2 outcome becomes
each student’s individual measure score adjusted for measurement error
(Raudenbush & Bryk, 2002).
Following are the equation of the models we used. For a complete listing of
the variables, see Table 2 and Appendix A.
Civic Learning Opportunities and Civic Commitments
14
Table 2
Hierarchical Linear Models Predicting 11th Graders’
Commitment to Civic Participation
Predictors
Model 1:
Demographic
and
Academic
Characteristics
Model 2:
Adds
Neighborhood
and Family
Context
Model 3:
Adds
Curricular and
Extracurricular
Opportunities
Model 4:
Adds Prior
Commitments
to Civic
Participation
Intercept
5.00***
5.02**
5.02***
5.02***
School level
Mean civic learning
Opportunities
.06 ~
.06~
Mean academic
Achievement
.11*
.03
.01
.01
Individual Level
Demographic and
academic characteristics
PSAE Reading Score
-.01
.02
-.02
-.01
Gender (Female = 1)
.01
.01
-.02
-.03
Latino
-.07
-.02
.00
.00
Asian
-.02
.00
-.02
-.03 ~ (.02)
White
-.04
-.07*
-.04
-.04
Free/reduced lunch
-.07
-.04
-.07
-.09 ~ (-.06)
Neighborhood and
family context
Parents discuss current
events and politics
.40***
.19***
.17***(.12)
Neighborhood
social capital
.53***
.23***
.20***(.14)
Educational contexts
and practices
Service learning
Experiences
.36***
.36***(.26)
Classroom civic
learning
Opportunities
.62***
.57***(.41)
Peer support for
academic
Achievement
.09***
.08***(.06)
Sense of belonging
.07~
.07* (.05)
Teacher support
-.03
-.03
Parent press for
academic
Achievement
-.08**
-.08** (-.06)
Afterschool activities
School and other clubs
.16***
.14* (.10)
Sports
.02
.02
Prior civic commitments
Prior commitments to
civic participation
(from 2003)
.27***(.19)
% Variance Explained
1%
27%
59%
63%
~ = p < .10 * = p < .05 ** = p < .01 *** = p < .001
All Coefficients Standardized. Numbers in parentheses are effect sizes
Civic Learning Opportunities and Civic Commitments
15
Level 1:
,
1
Commitment Civic
jk
jk
jk
jk
jk
e
ss
+=
!
where
)1,0(~ Ne
jk
,
jk
s
is the standard error estimated from the Rasch analysis for
student j in school k and
jk
!
is the student’s “true score.
Level 2:
π
jk
= β
0k
+
!
=
6
1p
β
pk
(student demographic and academic characteristics) +
!
=
8
7p
β
pk
(neighborhood and family context)+ β
9k
(service learning) + β
10k
(classroom civic
learning opportunities) +
!
=
14
11p
β
pk
(school support for academic and social
development) +
!
=
16
15p
β
pk
(afterschool activities) + β
17k
(prior commitments) + r
jk
Level 3:
β
0k
= γ
00
+ γ
01
(school mean civic learning opportunities)
k
+
γ
02
(school mean academic achievement)
k
+ u
0k
β
pk
= γ
p0,
for p = 1 to 17 (models 1 and 2)
β
pk
= γ
p0,
for p = 1 to 9, 11 to 17; β
10k
= γ
10,0
+
u
10k
(Models 3 and 4);
At the school level we also tried models including the racial composition of
the school and the aggregate social status and poverty level of its students
based on their census block addresses. Neither the racial composition nor the
socio-economic variables ever reached the level of statistical significance, so we
removed them from the school level equations.
In most of our analytic models all individual-level variables were
standardized and grand-mean centered. Furthermore, based on the
assumption that the relationship between, say, being female and having
commitments to civic participation, was the same across all schools in our
sample, all Level 2 variables were fixed. However, in the models where we
included our measure of classroom civic learning opportunities, we group
mean-centered that variable at Level 2 and included each school’s mean value
Civic Learning Opportunities and Civic Commitments
16
at Level 3. This allowed us to directly estimate the difference in mean civic
commitment for schools that differed by one unit in civic learning
opportunities by reading the coefficient at Level 3. We allowed the coefficient
of classroom civic learning opportunities at Level 2 to vary across schools,
assuming that some schools might be better able to implement these curricular
practices than other schools. The analysis indicated that there was significant
variation between schools in the relationship between civic learning
opportunities and students’ commitment to civic participation (p=.02).
Results
As discussed above, our study aims to identify the factors that may support
the development of commitments to civic participation. We present these
findings using four models. Model 1 includes only individual demographic
characteristics. Model 2 adds two indicators of family and neighborhood
context that are not demographic in nature: an indicator assessing parental
discussion of politics and civic issues with youth and an indicator of social
capital in the neighborhood. Model 3 adds indicators of educational contexts
and practices (those that explicitly target civic development and those that are
thought to promote more standard academic outcomes) and afterschool
activities. Model 4 includes all the variables in Model 3 and adds a measure of
commitments to civic participation taken two years earlier in 2003. This
measure is identical to the measure used in 2005 and acts as a control for prior
commitments. We also ran a model using each item in our measure of
classroom civic learning opportunities as a separate indicator to make sure
that no individual item was driving the result. We found that each individual
item was significantly related to the outcome, and the size of each separate
coefficient was about the same. We do not report on that model here.
We provide the results in Table 2. Because of the different grouping
strategies, the intercept has a slightly different interpretation depending on the
model. In Models 1 and 2, the intercept is the civic commitment score for a
student who is average for the sample on all predictors. For Models 3 and 4,
the intercept is the civic commitment for a student who is average for his/her
school in civic learning opportunities and average for the system in all other
respects. We give the standardized coefficients for each model. For Model 4 we
also provide effect sizes. To calculate effect sizes we divided the standardized
coefficient by the standard deviation of the outcome, computed by taking the
square root of the sum of all variances in the unconditional model.
To interpret the meaning of a score on a Rasch measure such as a student’s
commitment to civic participation, one needs to look at the expected responses
to each item for a person with that measure score. Since this is not transparent
from Table 2, we provide a brief explanation. In this particular sample, a
student scoring at the mean of commitments to civic participation would score
at the intercept of each model. Such a student would agree with the four items
that are easiest to endorse: “Being concerned about state and local issues is an
important responsibility for everybody,” “In the next 3 years I expect to be
involved in improving my community,” I have good ideas for programs or
Civic Learning Opportunities and Civic Commitments
17
projects that would help solve problems in my community,” and “In the next 3
years I expect to work on at least one community project that involves
government agency.” This student would disagree with, “Being actively
involved in community issues is my responsibility.” Students with civic
commitments one half standard deviation below the mean (at about the 30
th
percentile in the distribution) would agree with the two easiest items to
endorse, and would disagree with the three hardest items. Students with civic
commitments one half standard deviation above the mean (at about the 70
th
percentile in the distribution) would agree with all five items.
Student Demographic and Academic Characteristics
As shown in Model 1 (see Table 2), eleventh graders’ demographic
characteristics do not appear to be strongly related to their level of civic
commitment. In fact, when only student demographics and academic
characteristics were included in the model, they explained only 1% of the total
variance. In addition, the only indicator that achieved statistical significance
was mean achievement at the school level, showing that on average students
attending schools with higher mean achievement developed higher
commitments to civic participation. However, this relationship disappeared
once other variables were included in the model. In Model 2, white students
were associated with less of a civic commitment than African-Americans, the
omitted category in our analysis, although this difference disappeared when
other variables were added in subsequent models. Our measure of student
socioeconomic status, whether a student was eligible for free or reduced lunch,
reached marginal significance in our final model. Its effect size was quite small.
Neighborhood and Family Context
Our measures of neighborhood and family context were strongly related to
students commitments to civic participation. As predicted, high school
juniors’ reports of neighborhood social capital were positively related to their
overall level of commitment to civic participation. Specifically, high school
juniors who reported that their community is one in which adults both care
about youth and work to make the community better were more likely to
report high levels of commitments to civic participation. This relationship
(though diminished in magnitude) remained even after controlling for
different school experiences (Model 3) and after additionally controlling for
their level of commitments to civic participation as 9
th
graders (Model 4).
We found that having parents who discussed current events and politics
with their children was positively associated with students’ level of
commitments to civic participation. Again, this positive relationship remained
after controlling for school experiences (Model 3) and prior commitments
(Model 4).
School Supports for Academic and Social Development
Civic Learning Opportunities and Civic Commitments
18
We found that several of these supports did promote desired commitments
to civic participation, though the magnitude of these effects was generally
modest. Specifically, when students experienced their peers as supportive of
academic achievement by, for example, helping each other prepare for tests or
do homework or, more generally, by sharing a commitment to doing well in
school, they were also slightly more likely to express commitments to civic
participation. And when students expressed more of a sense of belonging to
the school, they reported higher levels of commitments to civic participation.
Perceived teacher support was not associated with commitments to civic
participation when controlling for the other variables. One exception to this
pattern occurred with parental press for academic achievement. We found a
small but statistically significant and negative relationship between student
reports that their parents attended to and supported their focus on academic
achievement and their reported levels of commitment to civic participation.
Afterschool Activities
Participation in afterschool extracurricular activities other than sports was
related to increased commitments to civic participation. The effect sizes of
these opportunities are relatively modest compared to some classroom
opportunities that more explicitly target civic and political issues. Participation
on either in-school or out-of-school sports teams was not related to increased
civic commitments before or after controlling for prior civic commitments.
Classroom Civic Learning Opportunities
The impact of civic learning opportunities and of experiencing service
learning was both sizable and substantially larger than any other measure in
our study including students’ prior commitments to civic participation.
Explaining Variation at the School and Individual Level
As Table 2 shows, as we add predictors, our models explain increasing
amounts of the variation in studentscommitments to civic participation. Our
final model explains 63% of this variation. While only 9% of the variation in
classroom civic learning opportunities was at the school level, the schools’ level
of civic learning opportunities was a marginally significant predictor of
students’ commitments to civic participation in Models 3 and 4.
Civic Learning Opportunities and Civic Commitments
19
Discussion
One of the most important results of this study is that what happens in
classrooms can have a significant impact on students’ commitments to civic
participation. In addition, because the students in this sample are primarily
low-income students of color, this study highlights activities that may help
offset some of the striking inequalities in political voice that currently
characterize our democracy. These results are particularly powerful given that
previous civic commitments were controlled in the analyses. In what follows,
we discuss these and other findings from the study.
First, we have found that experiences that focus directly on civic and
political issues and ways to act (e.g. undertaking service learning projects,
following current events, discussing problems in the community and ways to
respond, providing students with a classroom in which open dialog around
controversial issues is common and where students study topics that matter to
them, as well as exposure to civic role models) are a highly efficacious means of
fostering commitments to civic participation. In fact, the effect size of both
service learning opportunities (.26) and the overall measure of classroom civic
learning opportunities (.41) are larger than any other factor in this study.
These findings are consistent with recent research by Torney-Purta et al.,
(2007) and with other studies that have examined the association between
varied classroom practices and commitments to civic participation (Gibson &
Levine, 2003). Indeed, the primary contribution of this study is demonstrating
that these associations are quite sizable even when controlling for prior civic
commitments and a range of other neighborhood, school, and family
characteristics something other large scale studies of multiple civic learning
opportunities have not done.
The efficacy of these particular civic learning opportunities might be
viewed by some as in conflict with findings from early longitudinal studies
(most prominently Langton & Jennings, 1968 – also see Cook, 1985 for review)
that called into question the ability of schools to influence students’ levels of
civic participation. These earlier studies found that taking civic education or
government courses did not spur desired outcomes. However, since such
courses likely vary widely in the degree to which they provide the kind of civic
learning opportunities we examine, we do not view these findings as
contradictory. Indeed, they speak to the need for policymakers and educators
to focus on ensuring that students receive these efficacious practices rather
than simply requiring students to enroll in particular courses.
Second, since this study focused on predominantly low-income students
and students of color, it is important to highlight that these curricular
approaches appear to provide significant benefits for students from groups
that generally have less political voice than others (APSA Task Force, 2004;
Verba et al., 1995). Indeed, analysis from this sample indicates that classroom
civic learning opportunities can more than offset the impact of neighborhood
or home contexts that are relatively inattentive to civic and political issues
when it comes to the development of commitments to civic participation.
Civic Learning Opportunities and Civic Commitments
20
Consider for example, a student who is average with respect to demographics,
aspects of schooling related to academic achievement, afterschool participation
in extracurricular activities, and civic learning opportunities, but one standard
deviation below average when it comes to neighborhood social capital and
conversations with parents. This student would be at the 40
th
percentile in
terms of his or her commitment to civic participation. If, on the other hand,
this student experienced a level of civic learning opportunities that was one
standard deviation above the system average, then, despite the lack of focus on
these issues in the students’ neighborhood and home, this same student would
be at the 70
th
percentile in commitment to civic participation.
Thus, schools appear able to help lessen the participatory inequality that
exists in our civic and political life. Indeed, this finding takes on added
importance in light of recent studies finding that the provision of these school-
based civic learning opportunities is unequal. For example, a study by Kahne
and Middaugh (2008) that draws on a nationally representative survey of high
school students and a survey of high school students in California indicates
that students of color, those whose academic performance is less strong than
others, as well as those who are part of classrooms with relatively more low-
income students all receive far fewer classroom based civic learning
opportunities. Though we do not know the degree to which equalizing the
access of all students to these opportunities might ultimately help resolve some
of the civic and political inequalities noted at the outset of this paper, this
study of youth in Chicago indicates that such an effort might well help.
Third, while we saw strong evidence that providing explicitly civic learning
opportunities was efficacious, we did not see strong evidence that experiencing
more general academic and social supports in school fostered civic outcomes.
Indeed, focusing on teacher, student, and peer relationships associated with
academics and social development appears insufficient as a means of fostering
commitments to civic and political engagement. Our study finds, at best, only
small effects for some of these measures. We suspect these limited effects are
due to the academic focus of these relationships and supports. Specifically, as
discussed in our conceptual framework, recent research (Hart, 2005; Kahne &
Westheimer, 2003; Youniss & Yates, 1997) indicates that classroom
opportunities with an explicitly civic dimension can develop students’ sense of
civic agency, social relatedness, and political and moral understandings--key
building blocks of a civic identity. In line with this model, since academic and
social supports have a less direct relationship to civic and political dimensions
of students’ identities, they would not be expected to have as great an impact
on students’ civic commitments.
These findings have significant implications for policy. In particular, it
appears that mainstream school reform agendas will be insufficient when it
comes to civic development. Practices that directly target civic outcomes will
be necessary in order for schools to exert a sizable impact on students’
commitments to civic participation. Indeed, it is interesting to note that
coming from a family where students said their parents emphasized academic
achievement by doing such things as encouraging them to work hard, talking
with them about their school work, or talking with them about their
Civic Learning Opportunities and Civic Commitments
21
performance in school, is inversely related to students’ commitments to civic
participation. While we are not clear why this relationship exists, it would be
interesting to examine whether and under what circumstances parental
emphasis on academic success may crowd out attention to civics.
Fourth, in addition to the sizable impact of school-based civic learning
opportunities, we found that students were more likely to express higher levels
of commitment to civic participation when they saw examples of neighbors
dealing with community problems, when they felt adults looked after children,
and when they had a general sense that their neighborhood supported young
people. It appears that when youth feel attended to by their community’s
adults it supports their civic commitments a finding consistent with other
recent work by Flanagan et al., (2007a). In addition, and consistent with
research noted earlier (Andolina et al., 2003; McIntosh et al., 2006; Torney-
Purta et al., 2001), having parents who discussed current events with them
contributed to students’ commitment to civic participation. In short, it appears
that when students witnessed concern for the community and current events
in their home, school, or neighborhood, they were more likely to be committed
to civic participation. Moreover, that the experience of civic and civil
communities may foster commitments to civic participation among youth
provides an additional argument for community development and renewal
strategies that aim to engage the public in efforts to improve their
neighborhoods and communities (Fung, 2004). These findings also appear
consistent with the theory laid out in our conceptual framework. When young
people experience their neighborhood as one that monitors and responds to
their needs and when they engage in discussions with their parents about
current events, it seems reasonable to expect that their sense of agency, of
social relatedness, and their sense of political and moral understanding would
grow.
Finally, the potential value of extracurricular activities as a means of
developing commitments to civic participation has long been noted
(McFarland & Thomas, 2006; Otto, 1976; Scott & Willits, 1998; Smith, 1999).
Our findings are consistent with these studies in indicating benefits from
participation in extracurricular opportunities other than sports. At the same
time, participation in extracurricular opportunities is voluntary and, when
compared with classroom civic learning opportunities, our data suggest that
their impact is more modest. We should note, however, that the relatively
smaller size of this effect may be due to a lack of differentiation with respect to
the emphasis place on civic issues in varied extracurricular activities. Just as
explicit attention to civic issues strengthens a school’s impact on commitments
to civic participation, we suspect that extracurricular activities focused directly
on civic issues and actions would be more consequential than other
extracurricular activities when it comes to civic outcomes. McFarland and
Thomas’ (2006) present study indicates that this is the case.
There are several limitations to the present study. Though the large sample
size and ability to control for prior civic commitments are strengths of this data
set, other qualities of the data present limitations. For example, as discussed
earlier, the fact that all youth in our sample are from the Chicago public
Civic Learning Opportunities and Civic Commitments
22
schools limits our ability to examine the ways demographic diversity may
matter and thus to generalize our findings beyond large urban environments.
In addition, due to space constraints on the survey, three of our measures
consist of only one item (our measure of parent civic discussion with youth, of
service learning experiences, and of extracurricular sports participation).
Relying on a single item is never desirable and likely presents the most
significant problem when it comes to our measure of parent civic discussion.
Parental contributions likely take other forms as well. Similarly, while this
study indicates that participation in extracurricular sports is differently related
to civic outcomes than participation in other extracurricular activities, more
detailed work focusing on particular opportunities would help us understand
why this is the case. In addition, since so many civic learning opportunities are
delivered in classrooms, it is a limitation that we cannot undertake a classroom
level analysis as part of our HLM. This limitation stems both from the fact that
students receive civic learning opportunities in a variety of subjects (e.g.
English, social studies, science) and because of technical limits of the data
base. Finally, while research indicates that self-reports of commitments to civic
participation are solid predictors of future behaviors (Fishbein et al. 1980;
Oesterle et al., 2004; Theiss-Morse, 1993), clearly, our reliance on self-report
methodology leads to questions of accuracy. These self-reports do not enable
identification of the actual forms of civic participation that stem from
increased commitments. A follow-up study of participants in this study
focusing on their behaviors would be enormously valuable.
Conclusion
In their discussion of high school civic education, Langton and Jennings
(1968) write that there must be a radical restructuring of these courses in
order for them to have any appreciable pay-off”( p. 867). More recently,
Galston (2001) argued that “researchers cannot afford to overlook the impact
of formal civic education and related school-based experiences. (p. 232)” The
findings of this study can inform those interested in restructuring high school
civic education so as to augment the impact of civic education efforts. The
study finds that providing a set of desired classroom civic learning
opportunities to youth in urban public schools can very meaningfully support
the development of students’ commitments to civic participation.
Civic Learning Opportunities and Civic Commitments
23
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28
Appendix A
Indicators Used in this Analysis
Table A1
Outcome Variable from Survey
Indicator
Type
Response
Categories
List of items
Commitment to
civic participation
Prior commitment
to civic
participation
Measure
Rel=.73
Strongly
disagree,
disagree,
agree,
strongly agree
How much do you agree with the
following:
Being actively involved in
community issues is my
responsibility.
In the next 3 years, I expect to work
on at least one community project
that involves a government agency
I have good ideas for programs or
projects to help solve problems
in my community
In the next 3 years I expect to be
involved in improving my
community
Being concerned about state and
local issues is an important
responsibility for everybody
Table A2
Predictor Variables from Administrative Records:
Demographics and Academic Achievement
Indicator
Type
Percent if Dichotomous
Mean (SD) if Continuous
Female
Dichotomous
59%
Latino/a
Dichotomous
42%
Asian
Dichotomous
8%
White
Dichotomous
14%
Free/reduced lunch
Dichotomous
79%
Prairie State Achievement
Exam Reading Score
Continuous
156
(15.55)
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