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Meira Levinson


Home > Community and Family > Closing the civic achievement gap

Closing the civic achievement gap
HGSE Assistant Professor Meira Levinson

HGSE Assistant Professor Meira Levinson has identified a novel and troubling achievement gap: There are stark differences in knowledge and beliefs about government between students who are born in the U.S. and are from wealthy families, and those who immigrate to the United States or are from poor families. Levinson argues that this inequality threatens the health of our democracy, and she proposes several school-based strategies to close the gap.

Are there gaps in students' knowledge about government, based on their families' socio-economic status? Indeed, this “achievement gap” story seems familiar: as early as fourth grade, and continuing into the eighth and twelfth grades, African-American, Hispanic, and poor students attain significantly lower scores on the civics test of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) than White, Asian, and middle-class students.1

As with other academic subjects, this achievement gap seems to be linked to income. On the 2006 exam, within each racial/ethnic group, poor students earned significantly lower scores than middle-class and wealthier students.2 This gap also exists between immigrant and U.S.-born students, with immigrant students attaining significantly lower scores on the 1998 NAEP Civics Assessment than students who have always lived in the United States.

But the division that Meira Levinson, assistant professor at HGSE, calls the “civic achievement gap” runs much deeper, extending beyond factual knowledge to differences in civic skills, attitudes, and behaviors. For example, individuals differ in their sense of efficacy, or the attitude that they can influence government-citizens who are wealthier and White are more likely to have a strong sense of political efficacy.3

Further, once they reach voting age, citizens who are poor, naturalized, or members of an ethnic/racial minority, vote, contact government officials, and participate in political campaigns and protests at much lower rates than white, middle-class, native-born citizens. In the 2004 presidential election, for example, people living in families with incomes under $15,000 voted at just over half the rate of those living in families with incomes over $75,000 (45% versus 80%, respectively); Hispanic and Asian voting-age citizens voted at a lower rate than eligible Whites (45% versus 67%, respectively); and citizens who had immigrated to the United States voted at significantly lower rates than US-born citizens (54% versus 65%).

Education is also a key variable. While countries in Europe and Central America, as well as Canada, experience about a 10–12 percentage point difference in voter-turnout between their most- and least-educated citizens, the comparable gap in the U.S. is 35 percentage points.4

If democracy thrives by pooling individuals' limited experiences and viewpoints, Levinson warns, then excluding groups of citizens, even inadvertently, diminishes this collective wisdom. She proposes several strategies for closing the civic achievement gap:

• Restore civic education to the curriculum

Research shows that civic education can improve civic outcomes for students. However, adequate time and resources must be devoted to supporting this instruction in schools. Levinson encourages policy makers to recognize that high stakes testing in math, and reading is squeezing civics education, or social studies, out of the curriculum. Offering elective or mandatory classes to high school seniors is not sufficient, because they don't serve students who drop out before senior year — students who are disproportionately poor and from minority racial/ethnic backgrounds.

• Give students opportunities to engage in guided experience-based civic learning

Beyond learning about government, students can actually practice democratic rights and responsibilities, either within or outside the school walls. For example, students may poll their peers about features of their school that concern them, and then work together to improve them. They might debate a current issue and then write a group letter expressing their opinions to an elected official. Students could conduct a voter registration drive in the school parking lot. Many other types of activities are possible—the common threads are drawing students' attention to how democratic systems work, and demonstrating through their participation the power of a community joining together for a common purpose.

• Develop empowering “civic narratives”

When students “learn U.S. history,” what they actually do, according to Dr. Levinson and others, is construct an understanding of events in the past that merges lessons from the classroom and from prior interactions with family, media, and other sources. A child growing up in a successful farming family will have a different civic narrative and identity than would a child whose roots trace back to more recent immigrants who worked in a mill town. But both of these students can likely relate to the “why” part of the story of U.S. history presented in many classrooms, in which this country is viewed as the place adventurous and hard-working individuals come to seek a better life.

But what if the perspectives presented in class are out of sync with those students have already encountered outside of school? Some students grow up in social networks that reject or have not experienced the traditional story of the successful American experiment. What kind of civic story, Levinson asks, can be constructed with such students that will enable them to see themselves as effective actors in a political system that is worth supporting? She argues that there are at least two alternative, but accurate, accounts of U.S. history that, if taught to students in segregated urban schools, may encourage civic and political engagement.

The first narrative, which may resonate with many African Americans, is one of struggle. Students might gain a sense of political efficacy when the founding of the U.S. is described as a struggle to work together to demand justice, equal rights, and equal opportunities. With this perspective on events in U.S. history, students can see their own role in the American tradition as continuing the struggle to hold the United States to its ideals of liberty and opportunity.

Another narrative that fits with the one told in many minority and immigrant communities is that of obligation. It is one's duty to be politically aware and involved, and to take advantage of opportunities that were not available to one's ancestors. The message of “now it's your turn” often resonates with young people.5

These strategies can increase students' civic knowledge and skills, and perhaps the likelihood that they will participate in the political process. When implemented in schools that serve students from disadvantaged or racial/ethnic minority backgrounds, Meira Levinson believes, these changes will help to shrink the civic achievement gap.

By Maria Fusaro, doctoral student in Human Development and Psychology at HGSE

To help public schools build students' civic knowledge and skills, Meira Levinson recommends these resources:

  • 1U.S. Department of Education et al. 2007; Lutkus et al. 1999
  • 2National Center for Education Statistics 2007
  • 3Verba, Scholzman & Brady, 1995
  • 4Powell Jr. 1986; Lijphart, 1997
  • 5Kahne and Westheimer 2003

Published: November 2008

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