Voices from the Field

Voices from the Field is a place for administrators, teachers, school support staff, community, and family members to learn what experts -- researchers, practitioners, family -- from across the country think by reading a short post that includes the latest promising practices on a range of school climate topics, along with references and related resources.

What civics learning practice has been most effective in your school or district?

Under Title IV, Part A of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), States and districts have the opportunity to expand access to a well-rounded education, support the safety and health of students, and encourage the effective use of technology. One of the allowable activities for supporting a well-rounded education is civics learning, educational experiences that prepare students for informed participation in democratic life (U.S. Department of Education, 2016). Civic competencies can include content knowledge of history, government, and foundations of democracy civic intellectual skills, such as critical thinking; civic engagement skills including the ability to dialogue respectfully; and civic dispositions, such as tolerance and a concern for the common good (Brennan, 2017).

Every State in the United States provides opportunities for civics learning.  However, civics learning varies from State to State. For example, only 37 States require annual summative assessments in civics or as a condition of graduation (Railey and Brennan, 2016). Recent test scores indicate that students struggle with civics learning, but continue to engage in civic behaviors. Results from the 2014 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) reveal that while the average score has increased since 1998, only 23 percent of eighth grade students performed at or above the proficient level in civics (NAEP, 2015).  In 2011, meanwhile, researchers found that today’s American students were more likely to engage in informal civic engagement, such as community service and volunteering, compared with students in past decades (Syvertsen et. al, 2011).  Civic attitudes are also correlated with educational aspirations. For example, high school students who were more civically inclined were more likely to report aspiring to complete a four-year college degree than students who were less civic-minded (Syvertsen et. al, 2011).

With this in mind, what are some of the benefits of civic learning, with respect to a safe and supportive learning environment, or school climate? And where can teachers and administrators find civics resources?

Interconnections between School Climate and Civics Learning

One of the key mechanisms for fostering civics learning is ensuring a safe, open climate where students feel respected and able to express their opinions safely. Schools with positive climate cultivate opportunities for peer dialogue that fosters the ability to listen to others, take differing perspectives, and express new ideas respectfully (Homana, Barber & Torney-Purta, 2006).  In a large-scale, international survey, researchers found an open, welcoming school climate and a participative school culture predicts better achievement in civics and government classrooms (Torney-Purta, 2010). Promoting respectful discourse and discussion in classrooms drives critical thinking skills, communication, and community participation (Torney-Purta, 2010).  Civic discussion can create mutual understandings between peers, which helps to increase awareness and acceptance of differences and diversity (Homana, Barber & Torney-Purta, 2006).  Other research has linked political and civic engagement with healthy development of identity in adolescence, which sets the stage for later adult success (Crocetti, Jahromi & Meeus, 2012).

Practices in Schools, Districts, and Communities

If you are looking to expand civics learning in your local district or school, the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools proposes six proven practices of civic learning:  

  • classroom instruction;
  • discussion of current events and controversial issues;
  • service-learning;
  • extracurricular activities (e.g. model UN and debate team);
  • student participation in school governance or local school board advisory committees; and
  • simulations of democratic processes.

These practices help students learn perspective-taking, improve behavioral and cognitive engagement, and develop tolerance for others, all of which are essential ingredients for fostering relationships and a positive school climate (Mutz, 2010; Avery, 2010).

One program that strongly promotes these six practices is the Mikva Challenge, an organization working in schools to amplify youth voice.  Particularly, the organization’s Peace and Leadership Councils operate in schools that struggle with high rates of violence. Through leadership opportunities and workshops, students can explore their own identities while taking active roles in the promotion of school climate and culture. For instance, students have surveyed their peers to determine the most pressing issues in the school community, and have advised their school officials on the issues. At one high school, students could get a community issue on the local ballot, and passed the municipality’s participatory budgeting process.

How do you approach civics in your school or district? Share your experiences below.


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