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New research aims to promote high-quality civic and political engagement

October 9, 2015
By Jonathan Rabinovitz
Spencer Foundation launches $2 million effort to create first-of-their-kind measures.

The Spencer Foundation has tapped researchers at Stanford Graduate School of Education to be part of a $2 million initiative that will create for the first time ways to measure the nature and quality of civic and political discussions among youth, whether face-to-face, in writing or online.

The project includes five research teams at four universities, with each team receiving a grant of $400,000. Sam Wineburg, Margaret Jacks Professor of Education, is principal investigator of the Stanford arm, along with Joel Breakstone, director of the Stanford History Education Group, and GSE doctoral student Sarah McGrew.

The Stanford team will be studying how well students discern the credibility of information online with an eye towards improving students’ digital media literacy skills.

“I don’t think we have a solid approach for thinking about how we teach kids to evaluate evidence online and how we assess it,” said McGrew, a graduate of Stanford's teacher education program and a five-year veteran of DC public schools.

Youth, for instance, often lack the critical skills to distinguish credible sources from unreliable ones when faced with the myriad items from a search of the Web. Much of teaching is still geared to help kids to evaluate paper documents.

“Right now we can examine and assess how young people deal with a static piece of text, but how they judge the difference between the New York Times as opposed to Gawker or Buzzfeed, those kinds of assessments don’t yet exist,” said Wineburg.

According to a release from the foundation, the five research teams will be considering such questions as:

  • Can today’s youth verify what is true and what isn’t on the Internet?
  • How frequently do young people use divisive dialogue and abusive commentary on political issues?
  • To what extent do students understand and have empathy for others who have widely different backgrounds and viewpoints than their own?
  • Are young people able to construct well-supported arguments on behalf of a political position they hold?

The Stanford team builds on its innovative on-line curriculum, Reading like a Historian, which has been downloaded over 2 million times and is used in all 50 states and 127 different countries.

The release from the foundation states:

“While many in civic education today bemoan the poor quality of dialog in the public sphere, which is all too frequently characterized by a lack of respect for informed arguments and for those with different perspectives, what is needed are ways to measure these qualities in order to help educators and policymakers identify needs and assess whether particular approaches are helping.

“Though measures of the quantity of civic and political engagement (i.e., how often do youth volunteer or work on a campaign) are common, there are currently few ways to measure the quality of youth civic and political engagement. For example, it's unclear how carefully youth consider divergent perspectives or examine evidence before acting.

“By supporting the research and development of reliable and valid measures of the quality of civic and political engagement, the goal of the new grant initiative is to inform and motivate educational efforts to advance stronger and more democratic forms of civic and political engagement.“

The other research teams are at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, University of California-Berkeley and University of Colorado-Boulder, which has two teams. They will be, respectively, investigating student interactions during online course forums; developing a new rubric to instruct students to write more effectively on civic and political subjects; exploring the ways that students engage in dialogue across different political backgrounds, race, ethnicity and gender; and to study students’ presentations to see how effectively they communicate their viewpoints and marshal evidence.

“These projects will breach new territory by providing calculable measures of civic and political engagement,” said Diana Hess, dean of the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Education and, until recently, senior vice president of the Spencer Foundation and project leader for the Civics Measures Initiative. “We've never had measures like this before, and the results here will help educators train the next generation in civil, evidence-based debate, preserving the platform of democracy in this country.”