Opinion
Student Well-Being Commentary

Can Political Participation Be Taught?

By Jeffery J. Miller — February 20, 2007 7 min read

Amid calls for a dramatic overhaul of American education aimed at preserving the nation’s dominant position in the global economy, there are still voices advocating more-traditional ideals of education, such as preparation for living in and passing on a democracy. Though we recognize the economic role of schooling, many of us continue to worry about declining voting rates for young people and their lagging civic participation. Some reformers recommend increased instruction and classroom discussion about American history—the various wars, founding documents, social movements, and national holidays—to remind students of our democratic traditions.

Such activities are of course important in helping young people understand the origins and significance of their rights and responsibilities as citizens. But voting rates haven’t declined because students aren’t exposed to enough history. Indeed, as an academic subject, American history has managed to survive more or less intact while civics—the subject aimed at teaching the mechanics of civic participation—has been steadily squeezed out of the curriculum.

The best service-learning often takes place outside the classroom, where teachers are less able to exert control.

One problem may be that schools have been slow to embrace the kinds of engaging instructional strategies that could mitigate students’ cynicism about politics and encourage their participation. Service-learning, for example, in which students identify a community need, work with community partners to develop solutions, and then take action to address the need, is a proven strategy for teaching problem-solving, teamwork, critical thinking, and many other civic, academic, and workplace skills. Well-designed service-learning experiences that incorporate discussion of the political dimensions of an issue selected by the students themselves can increase young people’s interest in politics and can make continued civic participation more likely later in life. Moreover, a recent study by RMC Research Corp. indicates that service-learning which allows students to engage in research and advocacy (organizing a community forum, circulating a petition, and so forth) contributes to better outcomes in terms of civic knowledge, civic dispositions, and efficacy than direct service alone (feeding the homeless, for example).

But the best service-learning often takes place outside the classroom, where teachers are less able to exert control. In the current climate of accountability, in which schools are rewarded or punished based on student achievement along a narrow academic spectrum, these options may seem too risky to teachers as well as administrators. In fact, since the federal No Child Left Behind Act was signed into law in 2002, the use of service-learning as an instructional option has declined in public schools.

The 2003 report “The Civic Mission of Schools,” published by the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, offers six promising approaches to civic learning. These include instruction in government, history, law, and democracy; classroom discussion of current events and issues; service-learning; extracurricular activities that provide opportunities for students to get involved in their communities; opportunities for student participation in classroom and school governance; and simulations of democratic processes.

What all of these approaches have in common is their emphasis on contemporary issues and applied learning. Students become more motivated to learn when they are actively engaged, rather than lectured, and when they are able to apply what they learn to real-world issues and problems.

A growing number of schools, agencies, and community-based organizations provide opportunities for students to engage in community problem-solving and leadership, and these groups are learning that, with the right training and support, students are willing and quite able to participate in policymaking and the political process. Youth-serving organizations such as the National 4-H Council have embraced youth participation in their leadership and governance in recent years, and have found that including these key stakeholders in decisionmaking has led to more-effective programming. Local and state boards of education also are involving students in governance in a variety of ways, as is shown in a 2005 report from the National Association of State Boards of Education describing how 12 state boards have involved students in policymaking.

Writing in these pages last year, the presidential historian Robert Dallek suggested that individual schools can (and do) offer opportunities for students to participate in decisions clearly linked to their own educational experience. (“An Argument to Engage Students In the Political Process,” Commentary, Nov. 1, 2006.) But young people also can offer valuable insights to policymakers in other areas. Community-based organizations, school districts, municipal governments, and state agencies nationwide have successfully involved young people in deliberations about health-maintenance and disease-prevention services, recreational opportunities, environmental protection, school reform, and other issues.

Schools have been slow to embrace the kinds of engaging instructional strategies that could mitigate students’ cynicism about politics and encourage participation.

Students provide an important perspective on policies that affect them and their families. Student participation can actually enhance policy debates by forcing adults to avoid jargon, provide background information, and explain their positions more thoroughly. The presence of young people can even encourage more respectful dialogue among adults, who recognize their responsibility to serve as role models. When these these kinds of experiences are supported through reflection guided by skilled educators, and then are linked to classroom instruction, students can learn powerful lessons about their own ability to influence public policy.

Another practice supported by many civic education advocates is the discussion of controversial issues. Adults not regularly exposed to young people are often surprised by the passion they bring to discussions of political and social issues, when given the opportunity to do so. Yet this passion is often stifled in public school classrooms because of educators’ understandable concern that broaching controversial issues in class could offend some students, leading in extreme cases to pressures to remove a teacher. Such a situation occurred in my own state of Colorado last year, when a high school teacher was recorded criticizing the Bush administration during a class discussion of the Iraq war. The teacher, Jay Bennish, eventually returned to his job. But students reported that he was much more cautious afterwards. (“To Avoid Pitfalls on Controversial Issues, Experts Say, Know Your Stuff,” July 26, 2006.)

One can argue about the particulars of the Bennish case and others, but the important lesson should be this: Classroom discussion of controversial issues must be facilitated effectively by teachers, in an unbiased way, to ensure student learning. Unfortunately, the message received by many teachers is that politics should simply be avoided in the classroom. Yet without such conversations, and the guidance, reflection, and relevant instruction that teachers can provide, it is less likely that students will acquire the skills to engage in respectful public dialogue as adults. Controversy is exciting and engaging, and can help students see the real-world implications of what they learn in school, not only in civics class but in other courses as well. The message sent to students when such discussions are sidestepped is that controversy should be avoided, rather than resolved through informed dialogue.

Knowledge of the historical development of our democratic traditions is a necessary component of any comprehensive effort to foster citizenship and encourage political participation. But even more important is the knowledge of how to participate and the belief that one’s participation could reasonably lead to a desired policy change. If students—especially those from disadvantaged circumstances—are not encouraged and provided with opportunities to engage in community action and politics, it should be no surprise when they emerge from high school without the skills or inclination to participate, believing that the process is stacked against them and that politicians do not listen to them or represent their communities.

On the other hand, when young people develop confidence in their own abilities and in the integrity and responsiveness of the system, they are more likely to participate. Educational strategies like those recommended in “The Civic Mission of Schools” can foster understanding and trust in the institutions of governance, forge positive relationships between youths and adults that lead to deeper engagement, and build a sense of efficacy among young people.

But those of us who seek to empower and involve young people must recognize the factors—policies as well as expectations—that limit teachers’ willingness to experiment with more-engaging and -rewarding practice. If we want an engaged citizenry, we must encourage teachers to venture beyond traditional methods and step outside the classroom door.

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A version of this article appeared in the February 21, 2007 edition of Education Week as Can Political Participation Be Taught?

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