Leadership Symposium Early Bird Deadline Approaching | Join K-12 leaders nationwide for three days of empowering strategies, networking, and inspiration! Discounted pricing ends March 1. Register today.
Education Opinion

New Research Aims to Promote High-Quality Civic and Political Engagement

By Justin Reich — October 06, 2015 5 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Today’s guest post comes from the Spencer Foundation, who recently announced a $2 million grant effort to develop new measures of civic engagement, including a grant to Justin Reich of MIT and this blog, Dustin Tingley from Harvard, and Brandon Stewart from Princeton.

Can today’s youth verify what is true and what isn’t on the Internet? How frequently do young people use divisive dialogue and abusive commentary on political issues? To what extent do students understand and have empathy for others who have widely different backgrounds and viewpoints than their own? Are young people able to construct well-supported arguments on behalf of a political position they hold? Addressing those questions and more are a top priority for $2 million in grants being awarded by the Spencer Foundation as part of its New Civics Initiative.

The project, “Measuring the Quality of Civic and Political Engagement,” will focus on accomplishing a task where progress is sorely needed but difficult to achieve - developing ways to measure the nature and quality of civic and political discussions taking place amongst youth, whether face to face, in writing, or online.

While many in civic education today bemoan the poor quality of dialog in the public sphere, which is all too frequently characterized by a lack of respect for informed arguments and for those with different perspectives, what is needed are ways to measure these qualities in order to help educators and policymakers identify needs and assess whether particular approaches are helping.

Though measures of the quantity of civic and political engagement (i.e., how often do youth volunteer or work on a campaign) are common, there are currently few ways to measure the quality of youth civic and political engagement. For example, it’s unclear how carefully youth consider divergent perspectives or examine evidence before acting.

By supporting the research and development of reliable and valid measures of the quality of civic and political engagement, the goal of the new grant initiative is to inform and motivate educational efforts to advance stronger and more democratic forms of civic and political engagement.

Five different teams of researchers from four universities - Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford University, University of California at Berkeley, and University of Colorado - will investigate the effectiveness of an assortment of educational practices. They will create a set of tools to measure the effectiveness of programs that promote civil discourse, assessment of the credibility of online materials, evidence-based debate and effective dialogue across differences - all, crucial components of high quality participation in a democratic society and all areas of deep concern to civic educators.

The ultimate beneficiaries of the project will be teachers and students, policymakers, and researchers, many of whom are eager for ways to strengthen the effectiveness of civic education in our complex, rapidly changing times.

“Concern extends beyond whether youth are participating. It includes the nature of that participation as well,” said Joe Kahne, Senior Advisor to the Civics Measures Initiative. “We don’t just want young people to be active. We want them to be informed and thoughtful, to be able to engage with people who have different opinions.”

To enable assessment of the state of youth engagement in civic and political discussions and debate, the Spencer Foundation has awarded $400,000 to each of five teams, each charged with developing new ways to measure a linchpin component of civic and political engagement.

“The unique value in this research,” said Kahne, Professor of Education at Mills College, “is the measurement - historically, research has focused on the quantity rather than the quality of civic and political engagement.”

The principal investigators and awardees of the Civics Measures Initiative grants are:

● Justin Reich, Massachusetts Institute of Technology - Reich and his team will study online course forums, specifically assessing the nature of interactions and discussions between students. Find out more about this research here.

● Leah Sprain, University of Colorado at Boulder - The project, “Assessing Deliberative Spaces for Engagement across Difference: Two New Civics Measurement Instruments”, will assess how students of different political backgrounds, race, gender, etc., interact and debate. Learn more about the project here.

● Ben Kirshner, University of Colorado at Boulder - Through a combination of observation and survey data, Kirshner and his team will assess how effectively students or groups of students communicate their viewpoints and the quality of evidence they provide to support claims made in presentations. Learn more about this project here.

● Linda Friedrich, National Writing Project at UC Berkeley - Friedrich and her team will develop a rubric to aid educators in using teaching methods that help students write more effectively for political and civic purposes. Discover more about this work here.

● Sam Wineburg, Stanford University - Wineburg and team will look at how well students discern the credibility of information online with an eye towards improving students’ digital media literacy skills. Learn more about the project here.

Ultimately, the Civics Measures Initiative will provide indicators that can be used to guide reform of policy, curriculum and coursework. “These projects will breach new territory by providing calculable measures of civic and political engagement,” said Diana Hess, Dean of the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Education and, until recently, Senior Vice President of the Spencer Foundation and project leader for the Civics Measures Initiative. “We’ve never had measures like this before, and the results here will help educators train the next generation in civil, evidence-based debate, preserving the platform of democracy in this country.” Hear more about the scope of the Civic Measures Initiative here.

The Civics Measures Initiative is part of the Spencer Foundation’s New Civics Initiative, which was launched in 2008 to fund research that asks important questions about how education can support civic and political development among students.

“Democracy only works,” said Spencer Foundation President Michael S. McPherson, “if people think that there can be multiple and competing answers to national issues, and that we need to listen carefully to one another and learn from one another. It’s the way the marketplace of ideas is supposed to work.”

About the Spencer Foundation
The Spencer Foundation was established by Lyle M. Spencer. Since 1971, the Foundation has made grants totaling approximately $500 million. The Foundation is intended, by Spencer’s direction, to investigate ways in which education, broadly conceived, can be improved around the world. From the first, the Foundation has been dedicated to the belief that research is necessary to the improvement in education. Find the Spencer Foundation online atwww.spencer.org.

The opinions expressed in EdTech Researcher are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.