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Can Education Produce More Civically Engaged Students? You Bet, Study Finds

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U.S. public schools were founded on the principle that there is a common good in acquiring the knowledge and skills to be effective citizens. But despite that belief—or perhaps because it's so ingrained in our thinking about schools—there just isn't a lot of empirical research to back it up.

Now, a new study shows that students who enrolled in a Democracy Prep charter school, which places a specific emphasis on citizenship and voting, had much higher rates of registering to vote and actually voting than a control group of students. 

Put another way: Yes, schools absolutely can influence students' later civic engagement.

In fact, the schools studied increased the voting registration rates of its students by 16 percentage points and voting rates by 12 percentage points in the 2016 election. (Before, registration rates were in the 40 percent range and voting rates in the 20 percent range.) 

"They've shown schooling is able to produce a very large positive impact on civic participation, and so there are things any school—public, charter or private could potentially learn from them," said Brian Gill, a senior fellow at the research and evaluation firm Mathematica Policy Research, which conducted the study. "And if we could scale up some of these practices, there's a potential impact in civic participation across the country." 

The research used New York's randomized charter lottery rules to study the impact of being offered a spot in a Democracy Prep school and enrolling in one. The team of researchers collected information on more than 1,000 students who were entered in the lottery for a spot in one of Democracy Prep's New York City schools between 2007-08 and 2015-16, and who were at least 18 years old by the 2016 election.

Then it compared civic-engagement patterns for those students who were offered a spot with those who were not, and from that data derived the effect of those students who actually enrolled in a Democracy Prep school.


See also: Can the Parkland Students Inspire a New Focus on Civics Education?


What's Democracy Prep's emphasis? 

Democracy Prep, a network of schools that began in New York City but now runs schools in Camden, N.J., the District of Columbia, Baton Rouge, La.,  and Las Vegas, puts a specific premium on civics education, both through coursework and through activities; students at all ages participate in voter-registration drives. More in this Chalkbeat story and an American Enterprise Institute publication. Democracy Prep runs 22 schools in all.

What does this mean for civics education in general? 

It's good news, because there aren't that many studies on civics education overall. And most of the effect sizes, while positive, are pretty small, as the researchers make clear in the study. (The exception is graduating from high school, which seems to have a larger boost on voting.)

It's not as clear how to take these findings and translate them into other school settings, though, because the study didn't include the qualitative, on-the-ground research that provide insights into the nitty-gritty, day-to-day steps the schools take to infuse learning with civics lessons. 

Is there anything notable about the results being located at a charter school? 

It's interesting that the study concerns a charter school. Although they are public, such schools are allowed to operate independent from many school district rules and regulations and often are managed by a private entity like a nonprofit rather than a publicly elected school board. In other words, a schooling arrangement that critics claim is less democratic nevertheless can produce results that presumably do build democracy. 

For research wonks only: The study is also notable for using a Bayesian analysis to characterize its findings. This means situating the results within previously published literature on the impact of schooling on citizenship. (The initial, nonadjusted findings suggested voter registration and voting rates could be as much as 24 percent points higher.)

There's a push on in research circles to do these analyses to mitigate the effects of errors in statistical analyses, and to counter "publication bias," which refers to the tendency of journals to publish only studies with results rather than those with no effects. 

Image: Getty

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