Research Highlight — Civic Education Landscape Analysis

This fall, Raj Vinnakota — the President of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation — will release a white paper based on a year-long research initiative funded by an incredibly diverse trio of major funders: Hewlett Foundation, Koch Foundation, and a third anonymous funder. This research is an attempt to map out the civic education landscape, identify what’s in practice, and hopefully attract a broader funding base to support work that produces young people who are well-informed, productively engaged, and hopeful about our democracy. Vinnakota started this project before he joined Woodrow Wilson, and the final report will be housed on the website of his independent consulting firm — Red&Blue Works, LLC.

CixNow recently interviewed Vinnakota about the project.

Q: So how did this come about?

Vinnakota: Well before I was in the picture, a group of funders had been discussing the need to better understand the civic education space. They were concerned about the state of civic knowledge and political practice in our country and wanted to invest more in civic education, but were unsure which investments would have the greatest impact and which areas may need collaboration. They felt they needed a deeper understanding of the rapidly evolving civic education landscape in America. I was approached by members of this group. They had a number of questions: What was going on? Where were the needs? What was going well? And what were ways in which to think about making additional investments in that space? At its core, they asked for an analysis or landscape of the civic education space. They wanted definitions: What does civic education mean? What’s that space look like? What’s the taxonomy and grouping? The big question marks of what’s going on, and so on and so forth.

Q: Can you talk about the diversity of the funding for this background. Why was that so important?

Vinnakota: This work only started once there was an understanding that it would include organizations from such disparate backgrounds and perspectives as the Hewlett Foundation, who was the lead funder of this project, and also with additional support from an anonymous funder and from the Koch Foundation. My sense was that if this work was to be viewed as legitimate, that it needed to take different accounts and perspectives. In addition, this is a highly contested, charged space. And ideology and politics plays a pretty significant role in the ways in which people view the issues, and I believed that if there was any hope that this work would go beyond just a consulting project that ends up on everybody’s shelf, that it really needed to have the input of a fairly broad group of people. And then, lastly, we needed to have some credibility in many of the different spaces that I wanted to approach. Being affiliated with a cross-partisan group of people who were in the space gives us more credibility and opens more doors.

Q: You don’t come from a civic education background. What were the advantages of being able to come at this with fresh eyes and not actually having that content background?

Vinnakota: I was very clear with my funders, initially, and then when I started working and understanding the space, that I’m not that expert in civic education. But having a fresh set of eyes, I’m able to ask the basic questions, because I don’t know what people already know. And, frankly, that makes me less biased about what’s going on in the space.

Q: What exactly was the process for this work?

Vinnakota: There were three parallel paths to this work. The first was to start to capture all of the research that was out there. This involved traditional academic research, broad policy-type reviews, and also gaining an understanding of what policies were actually in place in each of the 50 states and the District of Columbia. We developed a research database of over 200 papers, and have created a spreadsheet to share with everyone. Similarly, we captured the general policy and statutory regulations in most states on civic education.. We also have a set of spreadsheets and a database of this information to share. And we’ve also created a bibliography of the research that I read, some of which is in this space, some of which is in either adjacent or tangential spaces, like social emotional learning, character education and so on.

The second path was talking directly with people in the space to identify some of the key approaches, some of the tensions in the space, and some of the theories of change. I ended up interviewing somewhere between 120 and 130 people. They included practitioners in this space — including many, many of the folks in the CivXNow coalition — as well as a significant number of academics and other researchers, policymakers, people working in the advocacy space, intellectuals in the think tank world and the public policy world. And then, certainly, we talked to funders.

The third path was outreach to practitioners and funders to map what was going on in the space in terms of, where the funds were going, and where practitioners were playing a role. Whenever I heard names of organizations, we’d reach out. Whenever I heard names of specific funders, we would try to get their information captured.

By April or so, I had about 20 to 30 themes or hypotheses that I was developing based upon what I was hearing, and it was at that point that I then chose a group of about another 20 to 30 people such as Louise Dubè and Scott Warren, who I interviewed fairly early on. I also went back to them in the second round, where I said, “Okay, here’s what I’m hearing. Is this correct? Does this make sense? Am I wrong? Am I missing some point? Is there some nuance that’s missing? Is there some historical background that’s important to know?, And so on and so forth.

Q: What are the most important themes from your research and this paper? What should people really be paying attention to?

Vinnakota: I’ll give you a few, not intended to be in priority order and not exhaustive:

One is that thinking of this as civic education is too narrow a construct and terminology to use. You have to think about this much more broadly. And I think for many people in the space itself, this is not an “aha” or a new concept. Civic education really has to expand out, in thinking about how you develop citizens and how to develop people who can participate in our society in an effective manner. You can’t look at this as simply what we learn in school. This is also what you learn through family, through community engagement — either as individuals in communities or associations and organizations such as the YMCA and the local church, and other ways in which you engage and volunteer, and so on and so forth. And then you have to go even further and look at how people are engaging online.

A second dimension is that you can’t myopically expect to develop civic knowledge, skills, and dispositions just through a civics class that you take as a high school junior or senior. You actually start to learn civics from the day that you’re born. You learn about it from the way in which you interact with adults and the way in which you interact with other children. Something as simple as, “Hey, I really need that block in order to finish the thing that I was building. How do I convince that student, who is my age, that I want that block” in a way that’s not violent? That’s civic engagement as well.

There’s also a youth development aspect to this. The things that you’re learning in high school are going to be different from those you learn in nursery school. So you then have to take and apply what you’re learning, and align it with the science and ask “What is it that you learn? When do you learn it? How do you apply it so that you really learn it well?”

Then you’ve also got a content aspect of this. That is to say, it’s not just civics or social studies. It’s what happens in your English class, what happens in the hallways of your school, that also start to have an impact on how you think about civics and how you think about engagement.

Thus, you have this civic education space which you start to now define as something broader, I’ve started to use the term “civic learning ecosystem”. Civic education starts to bump up and overlap with other major spaces and fields such as Social and Emotional Learning because some of the skills that you need to develop are very much skills of how you think about your own identity: what’s my civic identity, and how do I also work with you toward a common cause? How do I engage in civil discourse with people different from me?

And so now, suddenly, civic learning starts to connect with all these other fields and spaces where there’s a tremendous amount of research and understanding and so on, and they’re not just adjacent but they actually overlap. There’s a whole set of implications to that.

Q: What was one of the more shocking discoveries for you?

Vinnakota: Just how much this space is under-capitalized. It’s undercapitalized in terms of the philanthropic dollars that go here. It’s under-capitalized in terms of the public money that goes into it All of that impacts research and other aspects of the work. The research money that goes into STEM is magnitudinally bigger than any research money that goes into civics or American history or so on and so forth.

Q: What effect does that have on the space?

Vinnakota: CivXNow understands well that this asks and demands way too much of people in this space. They have to wear multiple hats: as advocates, fundraisers, and they have to run their whole organization as well. They have to figure out how to start up these associations. They have to work and create the convenings, they have to be the innovators as well. You have a small set of people who are being asked to play multiple roles all at the same time, and that’s not possible to do successfully over time — especially if you want to develop a sustained field.

Q: Is there one major takeaway that CivXNow can look at?

Vinnakota: I’m trying to highlight certain themes to build a broad and thriving field, but we’re still in the very early stages of all of this work, right? If you look at it in this broad sense, you’ve got some of the stalwarts, people who are doing amazing work in this space, but it’s still very early, and so this is where you start to define how do you go about actually developing a field of civic learning. There are certain places where there’s good work being done and we’re well on our way, and there are other places where there’s not as much work being done. And part of my research says, “Here’s where I generally think we are in those spaces, and here’s where there’s need for significant investment to actually build the field.” The takeaway for CivXNow is to understand that this is the long game, and we’re in the first few innings (go Nats!).

Q: Part of this work was setting up a funders workshop to talk about these ideas. You brought together 45 independent funders, and 65 people in total to talk about civic education and what you’ve been hearing through your research. In very broad strokes, what was that meeting about? What happened at that meeting, so that members of CivXNow will have a better understanding of it?

Vinnakota: As I was doing my research, one of the messages that was very clear is that funders had not actually come together, at any time or place, to actually think about this space, and there were many funders who were either dabbling in this work, or were not even aware that their existing work was having significant impact on what we consider to be the civic learning space. And so I reached out to my three funders, and I said, “I think the first thing we need to do, is to bring the funders in the room, and to start having funders looking to their left and right and saying, “We need to all figure out if and how and where we’re moving collaboratively in this space.” We don’t need funders to agree on all aspects of the work in this space, but there are areas where collaborative approaches are needed. And so that was the impetus to say, okay, funders workshop, first thing, and then there’ll have to be many things afterward as a result of this initial conversation: bring the practitioners, researchers, policymakers, and others, together.

At the workshop, there was general agreement about identifying some of the major areas of collaboration that we needed to focus on, in terms of field-building, in terms of scaling, in terms of focusing on policy, and so on.

Q: Why was that important?

Vinnakota: The funders workshop was a first step toward enable them to have a conversation across ideological differences, different theories of change, different approaches, different levers that they thought were important. A number of the people in the room did not actually even think that what they funded was in the civic education space, but only started to get “ah-has” as the conversations were happening. The meeting helped to prompt those attending to be able to say, “Oh, wait, yes, we think this is important, and we need to engage together.” And so the funders workshop was not a one-and-done, but rather a mechanism to get funders to go “Aha, okay, so now, if this is true, some important stuff needs to be done. Let’s now go and expand the table to get practitioners and researchers into the room now we have an understanding of the fact that this is a broader effort that requires much more investment and that requires some of our leadership.”

Q: This is the single most successful attempt at getting new funders and a large set of funders to even look at this space, ever. What do you think is going to happen next?

Vinnakota: I don’t know, yet. That’s the part of the work that now needs to happen. There’s a whole set of surveys that have now gone out to get feedback, to ask, “Funders, where do you want to play? Where do you want to start making investments? Where do you want to start looking for collaborations that can leverage multiple pocketbooks, so to speak, to bring together communities, and create communities of practice with people who are actually doing the work?” Those are the surveys that I’m working with now, that’ll start to help us to mark out what happens next. But I don’t yet know.

Q: What about for CivXNow members? What do you think they should do next — especially as it relates to funders?

Vinnakota: I don’t know the exact areas of focus — that’s still to be determined and requires conversations that include practitioners, researchers, and others beyond the initial funders conversation. Yet, there certainly are areas of considerable need:

There needs to be a co-creation of, I’ll say, a “new narrative” that integrates existing narratives and helps not only define what “the space” is, but does it to influence both heart and mind. So it’s not purely an academic exercise, but people actually get motivated by it and then fund the work that needs to happen.

There’s also a whole other set of work about how to align the research work that needs to be done here, so that not only is it being done well, but it translates well for practitioners and the school districts and so on.

There’s another area around measurement tools, and what are the measurement tools that we need to develop in order to have a better understanding of whether something is working. There’s another one around state policy, and what does that mean — and then also workforce development and how do we help organizations that are doing good work and scaling them up.

I think we’ll be able to develop a landscape map of where the funders are coalescing in terms of thinking about some of the work that needs to be done.

Q: Why do you think it was that you were able to get so many people in the room, whereas other efforts have not been able to do that?

Vinnakota: I think that there are two things. Number one is, you can’t underestimate the value of having the three funders that I did, in terms of approaching people. Everyone, largely speaking, everyone can affiliate and say, “Oh yeah, at least one of these funders I align with, I’ve co-invested with, I’ve talked to often before.” And then the idea that all three of them were coming together, I think piqued a lot of interest. Like, “Huh, this is something different than I’ve seen before.” The second piece is that so many people would say to me, “We don’t do anything around civics,” when what they meant is, “We don’t fund that government class,” or, “We don’t fund high school social studies.” But if you look at this broader concept of civic learning, to include online, higher education, and K12 learning, as well as non-academic work such as social and emotional development, youth development, and thinking about capacity. Then people say, “Actually, you know what, under that conception, yeah, I guess I am in this space.”

Q: You’re almost talking about a rebranding of civics for these funders.

Vinnakota: I’m not looking to rebrand civics as much as I’m looking to create a new definition of civic learning that links people to understand that you need multiple things happening if we are to achieve our goal.

Q: You can’t name funders who were at the table, but can you actually talk about where there might have been some tension or some disagreement among the different parties at the table?

Vinnakota: Sure. I’ll raise a few, and some of these things were the obvious tensions. One is a tension about the fact that you have finite resources, so there is a question over whether investment should be around a national-type effort versus supporting local ownership and investment in local areas. A second is just an age-old conversation, and that’s how do you think about policy and its impact, both positive and negative, relative to the actual work of practitioners and the research? So, should the work be first understanding the standard of practice and then move to policy? Or should you use policy as a lever to drive new work? A third was tension around some of this language and what it entails. The issues of how does “patriotic” work here? How do issues of “equity” and “justice” and, using a racial equity lens, and all of those pieces, fit into this work? There was lots of productive conversation, and more to be had.

Q: What’s been the holdup for getting funders into this space, in your opinion?

Vinnakota: For different funders, it has been different things. For some, there doesn’t seem to be a way to scale their investments, and even if they make a significant investment, there’s no sustainable mechanism to ensure that what comes from it will be maintained in the future. For others, it’s that we don’t yet have a research base that tells us whether or not much of this work is successful. Another is, frankly, feeling like their individual donations are just stones in the ocean, and so, is it worth it for me to be funding this? Others didn’t even see themselves as actually being part of this space until this conversation. Some others, until very recently, also didn’t see the urgency to make this a priority in their work. In other cases, there are some organizations or foundations that have a very strong education platform, and have strong democracy platforms, but this work is somewhere in the middle and as a result, falls between the cracks.

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