New Research Provides K-12 Civic Education Insights

March 12, 2024

Released at the Civic Learning Week National Forum in Washington, D.C., new research shows the need to provide more robust civic learning opportunities in high school, the positive effects of students openly discussing civic and political issues, the effect of legislation on teachers and students, and the need for more civic role models.

Leading researchers today released new analyses that indicate areas of focus for the expansion and improvement of K–12 civic education. This includes more robust civic learning opportunities in high school, the positive effects of students openly discussing civics and political issues, the effect of legislation on teachers and students, and the need for more civic role models.

The reports, which were discussed as part of the Civic Learning Week National Forum, come from RAND, Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement  (CIRCLE) at Tufts University, More in Common, and the Educating for American Democracy Research and Evaluation Task Force.

Civic Learning Week, March 11–15, is a nonpartisan effort that brings together students, educators, policymakers, and leaders in the public and private sectors to highlight and further energize the movement for civic education. It is designed to further understanding of what a modern civic education needs to sustain and strengthen our nation’s constitutional democracy.

This year’s theme, “2024 and Beyond: Civic Learning as a Unifying Force,” focuses on how to make civics a national priority, and how it can provide a way to combat polarization by building civil discourse and understanding. 

Research highlights:

  • Civic learning and engagement among 18–34-year-olds: This latest contribution to CIRCLE’s “Growing Voters” research shows how students' self-reported civic learning and student voice experiences in high school relate to current levels of civic engagement, including attention and interest in the 2024 election. The data from a nationally representative survey of 18–34-year-olds fielded in fall 2023 shows how schools can contribute to efforts to grow voters by centering student voice in and out of the classroom as well as through civics classes, school climate, adult encouragement and collaboration, and extracurricular activities. According to the report, student voice in high school is essential to growing voters and future active community members, as those who have positive civic experiences in high school in which they feel their voice and or opinion matter are much more likely to say they now vote and are civically engaged than those who did not report these experiences. The full report is here.
  • Effect of legislation regarding teaching of race and gender: RAND released new data from a survey of more than 8,000 K–12 public school teachers that indicate how restrictions on addressing race- or gender- related topics in the classroom are influencing teachers’ instruction and students’ learning two years after such state-level legislation was first passed. The survey, conducted in spring 2023, updates previous data that found that about one-quarter of teachers reported that limitations influenced their curriculum choices or instructional practices, while only 3 percent said that limitations on race- or gender-related topics positively impact student learning. According to the report, this could lead to long-term consequences for students’ futures and the future of the education system, country, and democracy. The full report is here.
  • Students learn more when they can discuss civic and political issues openly: The  Educating for American Democracy Research and Evaluation Task Force released three research briefs that synthesize existing research and show steps that can be taken to strengthen the way young people engage in democracy. Among their findings:
    • High-quality assessments and accountability structures lead to increases in young people’s civic knowledge, and students learn more when they are in classrooms where civic and political issues are discussed freely and openly.
    • When students engage in asking and answering questions by analyzing information, they experience greater engagement and deeper understanding than if they just use a textbook.
    • Social and emotional learning (SEL) and civic learning are often mutually reinforcing, as students' social, cognitive and emotional skills can help them critically and collaboratively engage with civic issues.
    • The full reports are here.
  • Few Americans have civic role models, but those who do most often identify parents or family members as these role models: More in Common released data from an online focus group-type of research activity with over 100 American adults. The data underscored the importance of proximate civic learning and helping young people build relationships with mentors and individuals who can help orient them toward constructive, lifelong civic engagement so that they see themselves not only as civic agents, but as role models for others to follow. The full report is available here.