Assessing the Civic-Building Capacities of Schools: Early Findings from a Survey of Parents and Students

Published date01 January 2023
AuthorAshley berner,Crystal Spring,Andrea Ochoa
Date01 January 2023
Subject MatterClassroom Climate for Civic Development
118 ANNALS, AAPSS, 705, January 2023
DOI: 10.1177/00027162231179825
Assessing the
Capacities of
Schools: Early
Findings from a
Survey of
Parents and
1179825ANN The annals of the american academyAssessing the civic-building capacities of schools
Schools in the U.S. have long been charged with the
work of preparing young people for engaged citizen-
ship. Do they, in fact, accomplish this work? Using
survey data from 164 schools, we find mixed perfor-
mance of schools in terms of their civic-building capac-
ity, with striking disconnects between rhetoric and
reality. We show that although students rate citizenship
as a strong school priority, they are infrequently exposed
to activities that support community engagement.
Similarly, parents expect classrooms to have open cli-
mates in which students are free to discuss and disagree
about controversial topics, but students report that
such environments are a rarity. Additional findings
indicate that lower-socioeconomic-status, female, non-
binary, and public/charter school students are signifi-
cantly less likely to perceive their classrooms as open,
and Black students perceive more open climates than
their White counterparts.
Keywords: civic formation; school mission; academic
rigor; open classroom climate; school cul-
“The desire to suppress speech and behavior one
finds offensive is instinctive. Restraining oneself
from doing so goes against the grain and requires
training and indoctrination.”
—Galston (2018)
Ashley Berner is director of the Johns Hopkins Institute
for Education Policy and associate professor of educa-
tion. Dr. Berner has published widely on citizenship
formation, academic outcomes, and pluralism, in differ-
ent national contexts.
Crystal Spring is a postdoctoral fellow at the Johns
Hopkins Institute for Education Policy and leads
research efforts related to School Culture 360
Andrea Ochoa is a PhD candidate at the Johns Hopkins
School of Education. She is interested in identifying
policies and practices that empower historically margin-
alized students to achieve their highest potential.
Political knowledge, skills, habits, and attachment are interrelated—and mostly
learned, not innate. They must be cultivated through young people’s interactions
with family, civil society, and, most fundamentally, the nation’s schools. Or so we
In the U.S., school systems do not, as a regular matter, assess the civic-building
capacities of schools (Darling-Hammond and McGuire, this volume). Although
there are many reasons for this neglect, it sits uncomfortably with our long-
standing national aim of nurturing the next generation of engaged citizens
through schooling (Berner 2017). To help fill this gap of knowledge, the Johns
Hopkins Institute for Education Policy included several civic-capacity and
school-climate indicators in its School Culture 360™ survey, which was launched
in the spring of 2020. The survey has been administered in district, charter, and
private schools across the country, and most participating schools are in systems
that vary in size from 2 to more than 100. In this article, we explore the civic
capacity of schools by examining how students and parents report on the mission,
goals, and classroom climate of 164 sample schools, and we analyze potential dif-
ferences by race, gender, socioeconomic status (SES), and school type. By
schools’ “civic capacity,” we mean those practices that promote political knowl-
edge (knowing history, geography, national political processes and structures),
civic skills (being able to analyze legislation, writing elected officials), civic
engagement (voting, volunteering, engaging in philanthropic giving), and politi-
cal tolerance (respecting the civil liberties and opinions of others) (Campbell
2008a, 489–90).
School mission and stakeholder alignment matter to schools’
civic-building capacity
Clarity of mission matters to institutional success. When students study in
schools that have “distinctive educational communities in which pupils and
teachers share a common ethos,” the odds increase that those students will
acquire academic and civic knowledge, skills, and sensibilities (Wolf and Macedo
2004). This is true in differentiated district schools (Chenoweth 2007), charter
schools (Seider 2012), and private—and particularly, Catholic—schools (Bryk,
Lee, and Holland 1995; Coleman, Hoffer, and Kilgore 1982). The same qualities
also make political and civic engagement in adulthood more likely (Berner 2021).
Schools with a highly articulated and enacted ethos can even have a positive
effect upon parents’ civic involvement, as Sikkink’s (1998) study of urban Catholic
high schools found. The means that connect a school’s internal coherence (shared
mission and vision) to positive, long-term civic outcomes include the creation of
social capital (Bryk, Lee, and Holland 1995), a shared sense of belonging (Seider
2012), and the presence of clear ethical vocabulary and habitus (Hunter 2000).
In short, schools with a clear focus on mission are likely to proffer academic and
civic benefits to their students and parents alike (Glenn 2005).
Similarly, Hess and McAvoy (2015) found a positive civic effect of “like-
minded schools,” defined as schools in which there is significant ideological

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