Amid a rise in hostile threats and anti-democratic actions that have interfered with classroom instruction and disrupted school board meetings, a new journal article by researchers at UCLA and UC Riverside highlights the capacity of schools to pursue the democratic purpose of education, yet also cautions that hyper-partisanship and harsh rhetoric pose an increasing threat to civic learning and democracy.
The article, “Do Politics in Our Democracy Prevent Schooling for Our Democracy? Civic Education in Highly Partisan Times,” by Joseph Kahne of UC Riverside and John Rogers and Alexander Kwako of UCLA, was published today in the journal, Democracy and Education.
Drawing on a nationally representative survey of U.S. public high school principals conducted in summer of 2018, the research finds that a high school’s overall support for a mainstream vision of civic education was not related to the partisan leaning of its community. However, high schools in liberal communities were more likely than those in conservative communities to provide support for a critical element of civic education - the discussion of controversial issues.
“In some ways, we are encouraged by the ability of schools to pursue civic learning across deeply blue and deeply red communities. Partisanship does not prevent education for democracy,” said Rogers, a professor of education at UCLA and the director of the UCLA Institute for Democracy, Education and Access. “But our research also finds limitations in conservative communities in the discussion of controversial ideas and subjects, a core building block of democratic societies.”
The study’s authors also worry that amid the heightened intensity of political rhetoric and rising incidents of anti-democratic actions toward schools and school districts in recent months, the threat to democracy may be increasing.
“Education for Democracy is playing out in a rapidly changing and troubling political environment. The events of January 6, 2021, and more recent pitched battles at school board meetings and state capitals have made clear the threat to democracy and civic learning has grown,” said Kahne, the Ted and Jo Dutton Presidential Professor for Education Policy and Politics and Co-Director of the Civic Engagement Research Group at UC Riverside.
“Such hyper-partisanship can lessen support for democratic norms and erode the commitment to educate for democracy. It would hardly be surprising if the widespread contention we are seeing was not making many teachers, principals and school leaders hesitant to engage with varied civic and political content.”
The article underscores the importance of an educational response to the erosion of democracy. Systemic school district commitment to civic learning and districtwide responses that support civically engaged principals and provide professional development in support of the non-partisan exploration of controversial issues can be powerful ways to promote democratic aims.
“The findings from our current study suggest that school and district leaders should stand-up for democracy and work to promote the democratic aims of education,” concludes Kahne. “Our research shows that schools in districts committed to civics, priorities were more than twice as likely to report that teachers got professional development related to the upcoming election. Such efforts to expand district-wide approaches may indeed be quite valuable.”
In publishing the research, Kahne, Rogers, and Kwako write that public schools have long played a role as “the guardians of democracy.” They are hopeful that public schools can be a critical asset for democratic sustenance and renewal. Yet, given the events of the current political moment, they note that the future of democratic education and the fate of our democracy are inextricably linked and at risk.
“We should not take these developments lightly,” they conclude. “As political scientist’s Steven Levitisky and Daniel Ziblatt have written, the erosion of democratic institutions and democratic norms and commitments is ‘how democracies die.’”
"Do Politics in Our Democracy Prevent Schooling for Our Democracy? Civic Education in Highly Partisan Times,” was researched and written by Joseph Kahne, the Ted and Jo Dutton Presidential Professor for Education Policy and Politics and Co-Director of the Civic Engagement Research Group at UC Riverside; John Rogers, Professor of Education and the Director of the Institute for Democracy, Education and Access at UCLA; and Alexander Kwako, a graduate student at UCLA. The analysis is drawn from a national online survey of public high school principals conducted in summer 2018. The full research article is available online at
Do Politics in Our Democracy Prevent Schooling for Our Democracy?
Civic Education in Highly Partisan Times
Published in the Journal, Democracy and Education, October 15, 2021
Joseph Kahne, UC Riverside, John Rogers, UCLA & Alexander J. Kwako, UCLA
At a time of heated political rhetoric and anti-democratic threats against schools, this study by researchers at UCLA and UC Riverside draws on a nationally representative survey of public high school principals conducted in summer 2018 to examine how political context, district priorities, and principal beliefs and characteristics are related to support for civic education. The findings reveal reason for both hope and concern. The study finds that a school’s partisan context is unrelated to most supports for democratic education. However, support for the discussion of controversial issues is less common in conservative districts -- raising important questions about a core building block of democratic societies. The study also finds support for civic education at the school level is highest at schools led by principals who are civically active and in districts that are committed to democratic aims. These findings indicate that systemic district commitments can prompt schools to fulfill their historic role and help to strengthen our democratic foundations. At the same time, given the heightened intensity of political rhetoric and rising incidents of anti-democratic actions towards schools and school boards in recent months, promoting district commitments to civic education will be more difficult now then in 2018. For that reason, such efforts will be all the more important.
The study focuses attention on the degree to which high schools support educators to provide seven mainstream and research backed civic education practices: 1) Instruction in Social Science and History; 2) Discussion of Controversial Issues; 3) Service learning; 4) Government simulations; 5) Engagement in school governance; 6) Leadership activities; and 7) Study of Elections.
It considers whether and to what extent the provision of supports for these civic education practices is related to: a) The partisan leaning of the school’s community (determined by the presidential vote in 2016); b) The school district’s stated commitment to civic education; c) The high school principal’s personal civic engagement.
Partisan Leaning and Supports for Civic Education
• The partisan leaning of a high school's community is unrelated to the degree to which the school provides support for six of the seven mainstream civic education practices: 1) Instruction in Social Science and History; 2) Service learning; 3) Government simulations; 4) Engagement in school governance; 5) Leadership activities; and 6) Study of Elections. Partisanship does not prevent educating for democracy.
• Of concern, high schools in liberal communities were more likely than those in conservative communities to provide support for one part of the mainstream vision of civic education: discussions of controversial issues. For example, with all controls and independent variables included, a school located in a community where Trump received one-quarter of the vote would, on average, be 19.2% more likely to provide support for controversial issue discussion than one in which Trump received three-quarters of the vote.
District Commitment to Civics
Findings from the study suggest institutional efforts by school districts to attend to civic priorities can meaningfully advance efforts to promote the democratic aims of education. Expanding district-wide approaches may be quite valuable.
• High schools in districts committed to civic priorities provided significantly more support for a mainstream vision of civic education than other districts. This relationship was large and consistent. Schools in districts committed to civic priorities provided professional development support for an average of 4.21 out of the seven practices compared to 3.00 in districts that were not committed to civics
• District commitment to civic education was also positively related to the provision of each individual form of civic education and the relationship was statistically significant for five of the seven practices. For example, schools in districts committed to civics were more than twice as likely to provide professional development tied to the election than schools in districts that were not committed to civics (39.7% compared to 18.5%).
Principals’ Civic Engagement
• High schools led by principals who were more civically engaged (those who regularly follow the news, talk with friends and family about social issues, and participate in civic organizations) provided more supports for civic education. Specifically, principals who were one standard deviation more civically engaged than other principals were 14.5% more likely to offer one additional professional development opportunity to teachers.
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