Pressing Needs in Research on K–12 Civic Learning: A Call to the Field

Teacher in high school classroom

In recent decades, most school systems have not prioritized civic learning in policy and practice. This lack of prioritization is likely a leading cause of the overall low levels of, and disparities in, civic learning outcomes.

In this brief, we discuss the need for action in two inter-related areas to help address the current state of democracy through the promotion of K–12 civic learning: measurement and causal research. Specifically, efforts are needed to:

  1. Determine where gaps exist in these two inter-related areas;
  2. Develop innovative, high-quality instruments that measure civic learning outcomes and opportunities; and
  3. Develop and implement a research agenda that leverages causal research designs to yield actionable knowledge for policy and practice.

We aim to contribute to a national conversation about the development of measurement and causal research agendas that will leverage a wide variety of expertise while tackling the significant challenges described in the brief. We begin by presenting a brief framework for civic learning, taking a broad outlook that extends beyond the traditional focus on social studies classrooms.

Next, we discuss measurement issues related to civic learning outcomes and opportunities and make a case for investing in the development and use of measures to build the evidence base necessary to inform future decisions about policies, programs, and practices. We then highlight examples of research on the causal effects of K–12 policies, programs, and practices on civic learning outcomes as a starting point for discussion and to prompt further inquiry.

We conclude with an invitation to stakeholders across the field of education to collaborate on efforts that are vital to better serve all students. Although we focus on K–12 schools, many of the themes and recommendations discussed in this brief can be applied in other contexts, such as out-of-school-time programs. We encourage collaboration across related areas to help inform future measurement and research agendas.

Laura Hamilton Headshot
Senior Director, Education Measurement and Assessment