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How Private Schools Improve Civic Education

A recent study suggests that private schools are slightly more effective than public schools when it comes to boosting student achievement in civics and their understanding of it.

Corner Middle School Math Coach Jennifer Rouse works with two eighth grade students in Zach Weldon’s classroom on Apr. 16, 2024. (Trisha Crain/
A middle school classroom in Alabama. A new study finds that private schools, and Catholic schools in particular, do a better job of educating students about civics than public schools.
Trisha Crain/TNS
In Brief:
  • Public school civics scores and knowledge are on the decline, something that researchers say complicates the reputation of public schools as a site for democracy development.

  • Religious schools saw greater success at encouraging student civic outcomes across a range of criteria.

  • The authors of a new study believe their work disproves claims that school choice will undermine democracy and serve as a “wake-up call” for public schools.

  • The past few years have seen historic amounts of private school legislation passed, primarily in Republican-led states. What was once a rarity — universal access to vouchers or other public financing for private and parochial schools — is close to becoming a norm in red states.

    This has triggered the usual debates about whether such financing empowers families and students to seek better options, or mainly serves to undercut public schools while offering taxpayer-funded giveaways to families that were already sending kids to private schools. In the meantime, studies have shown mixed results when it comes to the question of whether alternative schools do a better job of boosting test scores than traditional public schools.

    But there’s one area where private and parochial schools do appear to perform better, at least according to a new study. Students at such schools score higher when it comes to civics. The study found that private schools are more effective than public schools when it comes to boosting outcomes.

    The difference is slight — only 2 percentage points — but it’s significant, according to Patrick J. Wolf, an education professor at the University of Arkansas and co-author of the study. He says this is equivalent to roughly half the improvement you’d see with an intervention such as individual tutoring.

    “We found a particularly larger effect for religious schools in comparison to their secular counterparts,” says M. Danish Shakeel, an education professor at the University of Buckingham and one of Wolf’s co-authors. “This is surprising because there is a lot of concern out there with regard to religious schools’ ability to produce citizens.”

    Declining Civics Education

    Their paper is what is known as a meta-analysis, looking at the results of nearly 60 studies from over a dozen countries. In the U.S. civics education generally has been in decline, with only 22 percent of 8th graders considered proficient in civics. Last year, the National Assessment of Educational Progress showed that student scores in civics continued to decline.

    As long as there has been organized education, there have been debates about how effective it is at molding young minds to engage with and understand political systems. “In free societies, the importance of schools is in their responsibility to train the next generation of citizens,” Wolf says. “This was the justification for the U.S. and other developed countries launching public school systems: to prepare the next generation of citizens.”

    The four areas his study looked at were how students performed when it came to tolerating different political viewpoints; displaying political knowledge; participating in politics; and engaging in community activities like volunteering.

    As already noted, religious schools scored particularly well, with Catholic schools “improv[ing] the educational attainment of students” from “historically disadvantaged” communities. These schools do a better job of preparing citizens than public schools, Wolf says.

    “It seems like being at a school informed by values connected to a particular religion actually is a net positive when it comes to preparation for active and engaged democratic citizenship,” Shakeel says. “And that’s the important and surprising finding in our study.”

    This should help debunk the notion that the growth of private school choice will “destroy democracy,” Shakeel argues. And Wolf contends that their study should serve as a “wake-up call” for public schools.

    He argues that controversies in public schools, with many shying away from controversial topics due to parental and political pressure, as well as banning books and limiting discourse, is a “poor model for young people to see.

    “If students are going to become active participants in self-governance in the future,” Wolf says, “they have to be willing to engage each other in a civil manner on controversial issues.”
    Zina Hutton is a staff writer for Governing. She has been a freelance culture writer, researcher and copywriter since 2015. In 2021, she started writing for Teen Vogue. Now, at Governing, Zina focuses on state and local finance, workforce, education and management and administration news.
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