It's Up to Us: Bridging the Civic Opportunity Gap: Research Shows Socio-Economic Status Often Determines a Student's Opportunity to Engage in Civic Learning. Schools Must Prepare All Students to Become Good Citizens and Problem-Solvers

By Herczog, Michelle M. | Leadership, March-April 2012 | Go to article overview

It's Up to Us: Bridging the Civic Opportunity Gap: Research Shows Socio-Economic Status Often Determines a Student's Opportunity to Engage in Civic Learning. Schools Must Prepare All Students to Become Good Citizens and Problem-Solvers


Herczog, Michelle M., Leadership


In today's education reform discussions we hear much about the need to close gaps and prepare students for college and career. While it is vital to our nation's future that every student be prepared to succeed in higher education and in the workforce, it is vital to the health and future of our democracy that our schools also prepare students for a lifetime of knowledgeable, engaged and active citizenship.

Unfortunately, access to civic education is extremely lacking in California schools. Furthermore, we find that even among students afforded civic learning opportunities, gaps exist between groups. A "civic opportunity gap" confirmed by research finds that race/ethnicity, academic track and socio-economic status often determines a student's opportunity to engage in civic learning (Kahne & Middaugh, 2008). This study finds that high school students "attending higher SES schools, those who are college-bound, and white students get more of these (civic learning) opportunities than low-income students, those not heading to college, and students of color."

Why is this important to address? As noted in the executive summary of the research report:

"Equal access to high school civic learning opportunities becomes more pressing when we consider that low-income citizens, those who are less educated, and citizens of color are under-represented in the political process. Based on a review of relevant research, the American Political Science Task Force on Inequality and American Democracy (2004) reported: 'The privileged participate more than others and are increasingly well organized to press their demands on government ... Citizens with low or moderate incomes speak with a whisper that is lost on the ears of inattentive government, while the advantaged roar with the clarity and consistency that policymakers readily heard'" (Kahne & Middaugh, 2008).

Authors of another analysis of civic activity found higher income families were:

* four times as likely to be part of campaign work;

* three times as likely to do informal community work;

* twice as likely to contact elected officials;

* twice as likely to protest; and

* six times as likely to sit on a board. (Verba, Schlozman & Brady, 1995).

In addition to inequality based on socioeconomic status, there are political inequalities linked to a citizen's race and/or ethnicity. A recent study by the non-partisan Public Policy Institute of California found, "Those who are white, older, affluent, homeowners, and highly educated have a disproportionate say in California politics and representation in the civic life of the state" (Ramakrishnan & Baldasarre, 2004).

Although California is only 44 percent white (U.S. Census Bureau, 2007), whites made up 67 percent of registered voters in 2005 (DiCamillo, 2006). The fact that these political inequalities are still so deeply entrenched makes the question of equal access to civic learning opportunities in public schools all the more urgent.

What can be done?

There are three valuable resources that can impact policy and practice for closing the civic achievement gap in California schools.

1. "Guardian of Democracy: The Civic 1. Mission of Schools"

This new report is an urgent call for action to restore the historic civic mission of our nation's schools. It provides recommendations for education policymakers to ensure every student acquires the civic skills and knowledge needed for an informed, engaged citizenry. It also presents six proven practices that should be at the heart of every school's approach to civic learning:

1. Schools should provide instruction in government, history, economics, law and democracy.

2. Schools should incorporate discussion of current local, national and international issues and events into the classroom, particularly those that young people view as important to their lives.

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