ND Expert: Civics education at Catholic schools tops public peers

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David Campbell

Evaluating basic reading and math skills among American students is a common and expected way to expose deficiencies and highlight exemplary programs.

But what about training students in democratic citizenship? Can the effectiveness of civic education be measured among schools? Are some schools better than others at teaching civics?

“Historically, public schools have been celebrated as the exemplars of civic education, while private schools were often thought to provide an inferior form of training in democratic citizenship,” says David Campbell, a University of Notre Dame political scientist who specializes in political behavior, religion and politics, and education policy.

“Scores of empirical studies have now confirmed, however, that some forms of private schooling—specifically, Catholic schools—are more successful than their public counterparts in inculcating students with democratic values,” says Campbell, author of “Why We Vote: How Schools and Communities Shape Our Civic Life.”

Research on this topic comes from scholars in a variety of disciplines and was presented recently at a national conference, according to Campbell, coordinator of the research.

Though data have shown that some private schools and charter schools teach civic values with greater success than regular public schools, little has been done to learn from those schools’ strengths, Campbell adds.

Campbell points out one caveat to this comparison: students from religious schools that are not Catholic tend to have lower levels of political tolerance than their publicly schooled peers, suggesting that the type of private school affects the quality of citizenship education.

“Different types of schools have different effects on different aspects of citizenship education. In order to improve civic education for all, the next step is to move beyond the comparison of schools in different sectors, and instead determine what it is about some schools that produces better civic outcomes, so that those methods can be adopted by schools of all stripes.”

Contact: David Campbell, 574-631-7809, Dave_Campbell@nd.edu