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Requiring Civics Then and Now: Potentials and Pitfalls of Mandated Civics Curriculum

by Jane C. Lo & Zahid Kisa - 2021

Background: In recent years, the United States has seen a resurgence in calls for mandating civics coursework across the country. For decades, scholars have identified classroom practices that help make civics courses more impactful to studentsí civic engagement and knowledge. As more civics courses are required of young people, one begins to wonder if these courses include the kinds of curricular goals and pedagogical practices that can support studentsí understanding of politics and promote their engagement with the system.

Purpose: With increasing calls for mandating middle school civics coursework across the country, it becomes necessary to better understand what happens in these courses. To gain insights into a mandated civics curriculum, the study presented in this article examined studentsí experiences in a mandated middle school civics course and how the course influenced studentsí civic knowledge and engagement outcomes.

Research Design: We used a fully mixed concurrent triangulation design to develop a robust understanding of how a mandated middle school civics course was implemented. We collected and analyzed quantitative and qualitative data simultaneously to confirm, cross-validate, and corroborate findings. The qualitative portion of the study looked to understand quantitative trends by examining these relationships through in-depth interviews and classroom observations.

Findings: Three takeaways were elucidated by analysis of data:

(1) Studentsí experience of a mandated civics course varied a great deal between the two cases explored in this study;

(2) these differences were instigated by the academic pressures associated with an end-of-course exam; yet

(3) certain kinds of civics instruction have the potential to promote some desired civic outcomes in middle school. These findings suggest that middle school civics has the potential to promote studentsí developing civic knowledge, interest, and engagement. However, these findings hint at a troubling civic inequality that exists as early as middle school.

Conclusions: Our study found that middle school is a good time to introduce students to civics content because they seem to have fairly positive attitude toward civic-mindedness. At the same time, we found that the civic opportunity gap can manifest as early as the middle grades. Specifically, these inequalities are exacerbated by the existence of a high-stakes end-of-course exam, which negatively impacts students who are already considered low academic performers.

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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 123 Number 2, 2021, p. 1-42
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 23580, Date Accessed: 4/17/2021 4:28:17 AM

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About the Author
  • Jane C. Lo
    Michigan State University
    E-mail Author
    JANE C. LO, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of teacher education at Michigan State University. She studies social studies education broadly, with a specific focus on the inequitable experiences of students in civic education. Her recent works on student political engagement and project-based learning can be found in Theory and Research in Social Education as well as Democracy & Education.
  • Zahid Kisa
    Florida State University
    E-mail Author
    ZAHID KISA, Ph.D., is a research faculty member at the Learning Systems Institute and a quantitative methodologist at REL-Southeast Florida State University. His research focuses on quantitative methods and their application to examine effectiveness of educational policies, programs, and interventions for instructional improvement and student learning.
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