Schools Play Definitive Role in Students' Civic Development

by Shawn Healy, Program Director, Democracy

As a former high school teacher, I believe deeply in the premise that formal education can shape students’ civic development. The sustenance and success of our democratic experiment is dependent upon each generation being knowledgeable about both the issues of the day and the institutions of government, possessing the skills necessary to work together to resolve collective problems, and the belief that civic participation is both valuable and impactful.

The Foundation certainly understands that schools play a vital role in cultivating engaged and effective citizens. In 2015, the Foundation and other statewide partners helped pass legislation that requires all high school students to complete a semester-long civics course effective with the Class of 2020. Through our statewide civic learning and engagement work, including the implementation of the new course and the Illinois Democracy Schools initiative, the Foundation provides guidance and support for how high schools and educators can incorporate civic learning across disciplines.

Recently, I was asked by the American Political Science Association to write a chapter in a book entitled Teaching Civic Engagement Across the Disciplines. I highlighted the Foundation’s work with the Illinois Democracy School initiative and the related supports that must be in place in order to sustain a successful civic learning environment for students.

My research demonstrates that schools with sustained, systemic commitments to their students’ civic development have a handful of traits in common including: (1) strong civic mission statements and shared leadership in their pursuit; (2) challenging curriculum with traditional and innovative civic learning practices woven across grade levels and subject areas; and (3) leverage reciprocal relationships with parents and the surrounding community. Although these schools have room to grow in other areas, these indicators are vital to sustaining and systematizing school-based civic learning.

The chapter also looks at how civic learning and engagement opportunities in high schools (and even in the lower grades) help to strengthen the pipeline to college. Students who engage with civic learning practices, at a younger age, not only earn higher grade point averages but also have higher retention rates and are more likely to complete their college degree. They also demonstrate improved academic content knowledge, critical thinking skills, written and verbal communication proficiency, and leadership abilities. Challenges are acknowledged, but opportunities abound, as colleges and universities have an important civic mission that must ultimately form a P–20 continuum as we prepare students for informed, effective participation in our democracy.


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