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Closing the Civic Achievement Gap: An Interview with Harvard Researcher Meira Levinson

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Wrestling with Diversity.jpgResearcher Meira Levinson warns of a civic achievement gap that is every bit as troubling as academic achievement gaps. Poor students and students of color know less than their wealthier,non-minority peers about civics and government and they are less likely to vote or participate in other civic activities. Even worse, they are far less likely to believe they can make a difference through civic action. 

Just days before an historic presidential election whose results could hinge on poor and minority voters, Levinson spoke with us about these gaps--and what schools can do to narrow them. Download the full, 20-minute interview here.

A transcript of highlights appears below].

You can also download any of the following excerpts from the full interview:

"Bad for Democracy": The Civic Education Gap (4:44)

The Poor Get Poorer: How the Gap Grows in Schools (3:17)

The Question of "Efficacy": Convincing Disadvantaged Students that They Can Make a Difference (4:08)

Liberty and Justice for All: How Schools Can Help Level the Civic Playing Field (4:23)

Lessons for the Election and Beyond: Stable Democracy Can Survive Political Polarization (3:13)

Transcript of Interview Highlights
PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS: You've written about the civic achievement gap. How would you describe that?

LEVINSON: Basically, my argument is that the civic achievement gap can be understood in essentially the same way as we understand the academic achievement gap, except that this is in respect to civic and political knowledge, skills, attitudes, and participation, as opposed to math and reading skills and knowledge. Really, poverty is the clearest predictor of lack of [civic] participation. This should be shameful to the United States.

There's no reason that just because you are poor or that you are of one race or ethnicity as opposed to another, that you should have less high rates of participation, feel more marginalized, have less knowledge about our civic and political life. That's bad for democracy. It's bad for the legitimacy and stability of the United States. It's morally shameful, just thinking about issues of democracy and equal representation, and it just makes us actually a worse country, because one of the premises behind democracy is that we learn and we get better from the participation of more people.

PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS: Do you think schools are helping to level the playing field in any way?

LEVINSON: Generally, no. I think that if anything, unfortunately, schools are inadvertently exacerbating the civic achievement gap in a few ways. One is that there's now quite good evidence--Joe Kahne has lead a series of studies--that shows quite clear evidence of what they call a "civic learning opportunity gap," so that students who attend schools that are poorer and have more minority students or more students of color tend to offer a lot fewer effective civic learning opportunities than schools that serve a wealthier and whiter student body.

Also, certainly resources are not being put towards civic education these days, with the [accountability] emphasis on math and English and, to a small extent, science. And, again, the schools that students who are at the bottom of the civic achievement gap go to...Those schools are usually the most focused on trying to pass the assessments that will allow them to achieve AYP on No Child Left Behind, so they're the least likely to be doing innovative things or putting more resources towards effective civic education.

Part of what schools and teachers need to do in order to combat the civic achievement gap is to recognize that it's not really a one-size-fits-all education that students need to get to become effective and empowered citizens. That in order to teach a young person who is a recent immigrant from the Dominican Republic whose parents don't speak English and whose experience has been pretty negative with the Public Housing Authority, with the police on public transportation, with some social workers and so forth...The way to teach her that she can be effective and how to be effective, is in fact, in practice, fairly different from the way to teach a white young person whose family has lived in the United States for generations, where both parents are professionals in this country and fluent English speakers, who has a lot of interaction with professionals and has those interactions be positive, and has an experience of being treated respectfully by public officials and public figures.

PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS: We are days away from a historic presidential election. Does this have any impact, in your mind, on the kinds of things schools can do to encourage greater civic engagement?

LEVINSON: Yes. First of all, schools need to remember that civic education, civic engagement in the 2008 to 2009 school year, doesn't end on November 5th, and shouldn't end then. So this has been a tremendous opportunity, and it can continue being a tremendous opportunity.

Helping students understand the continuity of American government, the fact that no matter how polarized this country has become, and has been in the past, we have now had almost 150 years of continuous government in which there's been no coup, no threat of refusal to cede the reins of power...Students then have an opportunity to think about why that's the case, how it is that we are in effect such a stable country, and then where they can really take their engagement and try to become part of what's really a remarkable democracy.

Photo is the cover of Wrestling With Diversity, by Sanford Levinson, with contribution from Meira Levinson


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