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International Assessments

Political Democracy And The Iea Study Of Civic Education

In examining the contributions of education to political democracy researchers have considered shared decision-making, use of extracurricular activities to promote civic awareness, and policies designed to enhance educational equity. School curricula (especially in history, civics and government, and the social sciences/social studies) and the atmosphere of classroom discussion are also dimensions of education that contribute to students' acquisition of an understanding of and willingness to participate in political democracy. Citing empirical findings from a massive international study of civic education, evidence about these dimensions of education will be examined. The special focus is on how classroom practices contribute to what fourteen-year-old students know and believe about democratic processes and institutions.

The 1999 IEA Civic Education Study

The International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA), headquartered in Amsterdam, is a consortium of research institutes and agencies in more than fifty countries. Since the late 1950s IEA has carried out nearly twenty large, cross-national studies of educational achievement in various curriculum areas. The 1999 Civic Education Study, the first IEA study in this subject area since 1971, was ambitious both in concept and in scope. About 90,000 fourteen-year-old students from twenty-eight countries as well as approximately 10,000 teachers and thousands of school principals participated in the study.

The countries participating in the test and survey of fourteen-year-olds in 1999 included Australia, Belgium (French-speaking), Bulgaria, Chile, Colombia, Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Denmark, England, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Greece, Hong Kong (SAR), Hungary, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, the Russian Federation, the Slovak Republic, Slovenia, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United States. Fifteen of these countries and Israel surveyed an older population of students, primarily in 2000.

Design of the IEA Civic Education Study

Through an international consensus process involving representatives from the participating countries and reflecting observations from structured national case studies conducted during the first phase of this study, three domains were identified as important topics in civic education across democracies: Democracy, Institutions, and Citizenship; National Identity and International Relations; and Social Cohesion and Diversity. Test and survey items were then written to assess students' knowledge and skills as well as attitudes in these three domains. Specifically, students were tested on their knowledge of democratic processes and institutions and their skills at interpreting political communication (e.g., interpreting the message of a political cartoon and an election leaflet). In addition, students were surveyed on their concepts of democracy and citizenship, their attitudes toward their countries and political institutions, the political rights of women and immigrants, and their expected civic participation. Background information was also collected from the students, including the activities in which they participated both in and out of school, the books available able to them at home, and their perceptions of classroom climate.

The test and survey were administered to fourteen-year-olds by national research teams in accordance with IEA technical policies and guidelines. Teachers and school principals were also surveyed. The data provide a rich and complex picture of the civic development of young adolescents and the views of their teachers.

The Importance of Classroom Climate

The extent to which students experience their classrooms as places to discuss issues and express their opinions as well as hear the opinions of their peers has been identified as a vital element of civic education. Because of its importance, a scale was developed to measure students' perceptions of the classroom climate for open discussion in the 1999 IEA Civic Education Study. Students were asked how frequently (never, rarely, sometimes, or often) they were encouraged to make up their own minds about issues, how often they felt free to disagree with their teachers about political and social issues during class, and the extent to which teachers respected student opinions and encouraged their expression during class. Students were also asked how often teachers presented several sides of an issue and whether the students felt free to express opinions even when the issues might be controversial.

The students' responses to these statements proved to be a significant predictor of both student knowledge and attitudes. For example, single level path analyses show that a democratic classroom climate where discussion takes place and teachers encourage multiple points of view was an important predictor of students' knowledge of democratic processes and institutions and skills in interpreting political communication. The only factors more closely related to knowledge were the home literacy resources available to the students and their plans for future education. Classroom climate was also positively associated with students' plans to vote as adults–an essential element of democracy. Furthermore, positive classroom climate was related to students' trust in government institutions, their confidence in school participation, and positive attitudes toward immigrants and women. In short, findings from students tested in 1999 in the IEA Civic Education Study show that when schools model democratic values by providing an open climate for discussing issues, they enhance their effectiveness in promoting students' civic knowledge and engagement.

Although open classroom climate seems to enhance democratic learning and engagement, this classroom approach is not the norm in many countries. Across the twenty-eight countries in the IEA Study, about one-third of the students reported that they were often encouraged to voice their opinions in the classroom, but an almost equal proportion said that this rarely or never occurred (especially when the issues were potentially controversial). Teacher responses confirmed the students' perceptions. They reported that teacher-centered methods of instruction, such as the use of textbooks, recitation, and worksheets were dominant in civic-related classrooms in most of the countries, although there were also opportunities for classroom discussion of issues.


Classrooms where students feel free to express their views on issues, and where multiple perspectives can be heard, seem to foster both knowledge about democratic principles and processes as well as positive attitudes toward civic engagement and the rights of others. Yet, these classroom practices are not the norm in some democratic countries. An emphasis on the transmission of factual knowledge through textbooks and worksheets seems to dominant in many (though certainly not all) classrooms. Research closely tied to the design of professional development programs could help to illuminate the ways in which classrooms might better reflect democratic practices and thereby enhance civic learning and engagement.


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HAHN, CAROLE L. 1998. Becoming Political: Comparative Perspectives on Citizenship Education. Albany: State University of New York Press.

TORNEY, JUDITH; OPPENHEIM, ABRAHAM N.; and FARNEN, RUSSELL F. 1975. Civic Education in Ten Countries: An Empirical Study. New York: John Wiley and Sons.

TORNEY-PURTA, JUDITH. 2001. "Civic Knowledge, Beliefs about Democratic Institutions, and Civic Engagement among 14-Year-Olds." Prospects 31 (3):279–292.

TORNEY-PURTA, JUDITH, and SCHWILLE, JOHN. 2002. New Paradigms and Recurring Paradoxes in Education for Citizenship. Oxford: Elsevier Science.

TORNEY-PURTA, JUDITH; LEHMANN, RANIER; OSWALD, HANS; and SCHULZ, WOLFRAM. 2001. Citizenship and Education in Twenty-Eight Countries: Civic Knowledge and Engagement at Age Fourteen. Amsterdam: IEA.

TORNEY-PURTA, JUDITH; SCHWILLE, JOHN; and AMADEO, JO-ANN. 1999. Civic Education across Countries: Twenty-Four National Case Studies from the IEA Civic Education Project. Amsterdam: IEA.

VERBA, SIDNEY; SCHLOZMAN, KAY LEHMAN; and BRADY, HENRY E. 1995. Voice and Equality: Civic Voluntarism in American Politics. Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press.




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