The civic empowerment gap is a phenomenon identified by scholars and backed by empirical research. Civics education scholar Meira Levinson (2010) identifies our nation’s “current and intentional lack of educating our youth with the skills and the knowledge to be a part of democracy [as] the ‘civic empowerment gap’” (Love, 2019, p. 71). A synthesis of research findings shows that effective civic engagement programs are most often found in middle and high income neighborhoods, adding nuance to the empowerment gap (Lin, 2015). Lower-income students are underserved by schools and are enabled less access than upper-income students to quality civics education (Jamieson, 2013). These intersectional opportunity gaps are clear in the analyses presented by the Brookings Institute in The 2018 Brown Center Report on American Education, which reveal disparities in performance on the civics NAEP exam along racial, ethnic, and class lines (Hansen, Levesque, Valant, & Quintero, 2018). In most cases, the students who are excluded from the classroom are the students from communities historically excluded from fully participating in U.S. democracy through disenfranchisement and marginalization (Hansen, Levesque, Valant, & Quintero, 2018). The experience of exclusion perpetuates the marginalization of disenfranchised students as members of the classroom and as citizens in society (Freire, 1970).
The 2018 Brown Center Report on American Education report of scores on the NAEP Civics Exam found that over the last two decades, the gap in civics education has grown along class and racial lines. The 2018 data shows that only 9% of Black students assessed were proficient in NAEP civics, while 31% of white students demonstrated proficiency. Furthermore, only 13% of “Hispanic” and “American Indian/Alaska Native” students scored as proficient (Hansen, Levesque, Valant, & Quintero, 2018). The persistent disparities in access to quality civics education are troubling, especially considering the democratic importance of civics education in the United States. The quality of civics education is correlated with lower performance on the NAEP exam for African-American and Latinx students; both communities reported spending less time discussing current events, participating in service learning and engaging in political simulations (Hansen, Levesque, Valant, & Quintero, 2018). The denial of participatory and empowering civics education for students from marginalized communities serves to perpetuate the social disenfranchisement of the communities those students represent.
When civics education is taught within the structures of an education system and democratic government that disenfranchises marginalized populations, Black, Native American, and Latinx students are excluded from the standardized civics curriculum. These racial demographics of disenfranchised students are those most lacking in “civics proficiency” as defined by the NAEP (Hansen, Levesque, Valant, & Quintero, 2018). These are the communities that most need civic leaders to advocate for full participatory representation in the United States democracy, yet these are the students who are not receiving quality civics education. Lack of civics education should not be the barrier to full civic participation in society, nor should it exclude any student from learning how to engage in social change. It should be the top priority of our nation’s civics education to empower all students as active citizens who will use their civic knowledge to advocate for social change and work towards equitable representation in a participatory democracy.
Students who are not from privileged backgrounds are arguably in the most need of civic education that will help them advocate for their communities. Students with marginalized identities are at cultural odds with their schooling environment and are most likely and most often excluded from education (Delpit, 1995; Hemphill & Blakely, 2015; hooks, 1994; Love, 2019). This exclusion can be reified through explicit systemic oppression such as the school-to-prison pipeline that is established through educational practices of discipline such as zero-tolerance policies, suspensions, and expulsions, which disproportionately impact students of color (Love, 2019). The denial of inclusivity and validation of diversity is also established through the enforcement of harmful social, cultural, and linguistic norms, such as requiring the dominant discourse of “proper” English to be spoken at all times, thereby erasing the language, culture, and identity of others from the classroom through subtractive schooling meant to assimilate students into the hegemony and power dynamics of society (Delpit, 1988, Anzaldúa, 1987; Valenzuela, 2005). The opportunity gap is a studied and accepted phenomenon of the U.S. education system; previously understood as the “achievement” gap, scholars reframed the data to suggest that schools do not serve underprivileged students as well as they serve privileged students (Love, 2019). The opportunity gap extends to civics education as many students are left out of the idea of citizenship when only dominant identities and traditional forms of participatory citizenship are represented in the curriculum.