Political scientists attribute gaps in participation between whites and people of color to unequal access to political resources, political efficacy, and weak affiliations to political parties. I argue that the content of civic education courses also matters. I theorize that if courses were to incorporate critical pedagogy—an educational approach that centers the agency and grassroots political action of marginalized groups—that young people of color would be more likely to participate in politics. I test this theory using an experiment distributed to nearly 700 14–18-year high schoolers in the Chicago area. I find that content informed by this pedagogical approach bolsters the willingness of Latinx and black youth to pursue multiple forms of political participation. Such an educational intervention, coupled with other teaching tools, may provide a way to prepare an increasingly diverse generation of young people for active participation within American democracy. It also reveals how civic education in schools can play a crucial role in processes of political socialization and engagement.
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For example, Verba and Nie (1972) suggest that contacting a public official is its own participatory dimension while Junn (1999) defines it as “systems-directed,” attempting to sway government officials (1432). See Barnes and Kaase (1979), Brady (1999), and Junn (1999) for alternative approaches to categorization.
See also Cohen (2010, pp. 190–200) on “politics of invisibility”.
This approach shares similarities with pedagogical interventions such as “spatial stories” in geography (see Elwood and Mitchell 2012) and “critical bifocalities” in education (Weis and Fine 2012). Specifically, both approaches allow young people to make sense of their lived experiences while simultaneously building their political identities.
This course was banned for 7 years after law makers claimed that the course portrayed whites as oppressors and Latinxs as the oppressed. However, in 2017 this decision was overturned after a judge determined that the ban was motivated by racial animus (Depenbrock 2017).
A number of exceptional qualitative studies find a more critical approach to civic education to be associated with favorable democratic outcomes among marginalized students (see Levinson 2012; García-Bedolla 2005). Others examine whether schools contribute to the development of critical consciousness but are unable to demonstrate a causal connection between course content and political participation (see Seider et al. 2017; Diemer and Li 2011).
Furthermore, I measured both internal and external efficacy as outcome variables. However, the treatment had no significant effect on either measure.
Hypotheses for this study were pre-registered at aspredicted.org (#11310).
According to Pew, 55% of U.S.-born Latinxs are second generation immigrants and nearly 60 percent% are age 33 or younger (2016). Sixty-six percent of my Latinx sample reports that both of their parents were born in Mexico.
The study also included a third passage about Chinese Exclusion in order to test the effect of critical pedagogy on Asian Americans students. While I was able to obtain a small oversample of Asian American students, I do not include these findings in the body of the text because I was unable to get a large enough sample to find moderate effect sizes. Furthermore, the Asian American sample featured a greater degree of heterogeneity in terms of nation of origin than the Latinx sample. Even so, results for Asian Americans are included in Figs. 4 to 7 of Online Appendix A. Future work addressing the effect of critical pedagogy on Asian Americans specifically should aspire to obtain oversamples of multiple national origin groups to ensure accurate results (Wong et al. 2011).
Only three students opted-out of participation (one in Englewood, one in East Side, and one in the Loop). Parents were also given the opportunity to opt their children out of participation prior to conducting the study.
I requested to follow up with participants weeks and months following the intervention. However, Chicago Public Schools does not allow researchers to maintain contact information that can be used to follow-up with students.
Cognitive engagement was measured using one question: “How likely are you to talk to family and friends about a political issue, party, or candidate within the next 12 months?” Responses were measured using a 1–5 scale ranging from “very unlikely to participate” to “certain to participate”.
Civic engagement was measured using one question: “How likely are you to work with people in your community to solve a problem within the next 12 months?” Responses were measured using a 1–5 scale ranging from “very unlikely to participate” to “certain to participate”.
The political engagement index includes four activities: intent to vote, political campaigning, giving money to a political issue/cause/candidate, and joining a political group. Responses were measured using a 1–5 scale ranging from “very unlikely to participate” to “certain to participate”.
The public voice index includes seven activities: protesting, boycotting, contacting a public official, posting about politics on social media, signing a petition, sending a political email, or writing a blog or letter to the editor about a political issue. Responses were measured using a 1–5 scale ranging from “very unlikely to participate” to “certain to participate”.
While I am unable to test the empowerment mechanism explicitly using this data, I discuss this possibility here for theoretical clarity.
Language for the pan-ethnicity prime is as follows: “While this passage is about Mexican Americans, it speaks to Latino/a Americans as a whole. While Latino/a American groups have a range of differences in their demographic characteristics, beliefs, and perceptions of life in the United States, they also share much in common”.
Due to the directional nature of each hypothesis, one-tailed tests are used. Sample sizes for each condition are included in Table 7 of Appendix A along with means and standard errors for each dependent variable.
While I was unable to test the empowerment mechanism explicitly due to time constraints, I discuss this possibility here for theoretical clarity.
While I was unable to test for a role-model effect explicitly due to time constraints, I discuss this possibility here for theoretical clarity.
School administrators and teachers in West Town emphasized that I could not ask students for their geographical or contact information beyond Zip Code due to heightened immigration concerns. Prior to beginning the survey, one student asked their teacher whether they could use their initials to give consent rather than identifying themselves by name due to concerns regarding immigration status (West Town, October 6, 2017).
Sample sizes for each condition are included in Table 8 of Appendix A along with means and standard errors for each dependent variable.
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I am grateful for suggestions and feedback from Jamie Druckman, Cathy Cohen, Reuel Rogers, Traci Burch, Meira Levinson, David Campbell, Mary McGrath, John Bullock, Alexandra Filindra, Kumar Ramanathan, Sam Gubitz, Tabitha Bonilla, Ben Page, and Jessica Marshall, as well as participants at the 2018 APSA and Chicago Area Behavior Workshop annual meetings, the Northwestern American Politics Student Workshop, the Northwestern Political Behavior Workshop, and three anonymous reviewers. Special thanks to Natalie Sands for compiling the data set used in this study. I also thank Chicago Public Schools for allowing me to conduct this research.
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The data and code utilized to conduct the analyses featured below can be accessed using the following link: https://matthewdnelsen.com/research/.
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Nelsen, M.D. Cultivating Youth Engagement: Race & the Behavioral Effects of Critical Pedagogy. Polit Behav 43, 751–784 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11109-019-09573-6