Tackling Polarization Via a ‘Cross-Partisan’ Approach to Civics Education

While students need to learn how to productively engage those who hold different views, too little civics education does so. On that score, I’m curious about the work of Next Generation Politics, a “cross-partisan” civics education group that offers high school students arenas to discuss, debate, and write about contentious issues. I recently spoke about the organization’s efforts with co-founder and director Sanda Balaban, a former high school humanities teacher who’s held leadership roles in the New York City education department, the Ford Foundation, and the Teachers Network. Here’s what she had to say.

— Rick

Rick: What is Next Generation Politics?

Sanda: Next Gen Politics works to inspire and equip youth to drive a more inclusive, informed, and productive political culture in the U.S. No small feat these days, right? Through Next Gen’s peer-led workshops, forums, and online content, youth from different political backgrounds gather to address civic issues and current events; learn to engage with each other using perspective-sharing and deliberative discourse; and get involved in civil society, with an emphasis on voting and engaging in electoral politics.

Rick: How does this work?

Sanda: We have five core programs through which youth engage in peer-to-peer learning, civic action, and public media production. Our Next Gen Civic Fellowship and YVote program each engage 50–75 students per semester on topics ranging from climate change to criminal justice. We offer a blog and podcast, produced by Gen Z students, for Gen Z readers, covering a broad array of political and civic issues through a cross-partisan lens. Our Social Media Creator Corps creates daily content educating peers about political and civic issues for Instagram. Our Social Issues Cinema Club screens and discusses films about critical issues. And we frequently host peer-to-peer workshops for community organizations and youth focused on voting and voting rights, climate justice, criminal justice, immigration, gender and LGBTQ+ justice, mental health, and racial justice. We are headquartered in New York City and have youth participants from around the country — and a few from overseas.

Rick: How did this get started?

Sanda: Quite simply, it was the polarization and low turnout among youth voters during the 2016 election. After the election, I studied the current state of civic learning and the history of social-change movements. Identity formation peaks in the high school years, making it a powerful time for civic intervention and enrichment — but conversations about current civic issues are rare in schools. Many teens are aware that they live in echo chambers but don’t know how to break out. In response, Next Gen Politics convenes diverse teens to grapple with civic issues from multiple perspectives to sharpen their own views and, ideally, to devise policies that appeal to folks across the political spectrum.

Rick: What do you know about the effectiveness of your programs?

Sanda: We have developed a matrix of 36 Civic Skills for Life, like “identify root causes of an issue” and “actively listen to others and respect diverse experience.” Students take pre- and postprogram assessments of their civic goals and growth within these skills. Students demonstrate meaningful growth. This summer, participants in our ChangeMakers Institute climbed from an average of 2.78 preprogram to an average of 3.63 (on a scale of 1 to 4) by the end of it, which is equivalent to progressing from a D to a B+. We’ve worked with researchers at Harvard’s Democratic Knowledge Project and Stanford’s Center for Adolescence to develop and pilot a measure of “civic resilience,” which we believe to be a cornerstone competency and on which our students also show positive growth.

Rick: Your students recently conducted a survey on freedom of expression in schools. Can you tell me a bit about it and what they found?

Sanda: Each spring, our Civic Fellows have the opportunity to delve deeper into one of our focal issues from the fall by conducting Civic Action Projects. This year, we had a number of students sign up to analyze freedom of expression with The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) and Sarah Lawrence College professor Sam Abrams. They devised a survey for high schoolers, modeled on a survey FIRE administers to college students, about students’ perceptions of free expression on campus. Students got responses from over 250 teens from a broad range of public and private high schools in New York. The results were sobering and, unfortunately, bore out our students’ hypotheses about their peers feeling intimidated when it comes to sharing unpopular perspectives or opinions. Respondents felt that their classmates do a poor job of seeking out and listening to viewpoints different from their own and that their parents do an even worse job. You can check out the full results here.

Rick: Many civic-engagement efforts seem, at least to me, to exhibit a left-leaning bias. How does Next Gen think about viewpoint diversity?

Sanda: Partly by being intentional about it! We are very explicit about our cross-partisan approach, meaning that everything is grounded in looking at things from multiple perspectives across the ideological spectrum. We provide extensive background resources, like readings, videos, and podcasts, from conservative and progressive points of view. Our civic forums are grounded in deliberation, a form of civil discourse through which youth participants tackle issues that aren’t easily solved, grapple with areas of common disagreement, listen carefully to different perspectives, weigh the trade-offs of different courses of action, and think about what matters most to them. Youth are very drawn to this approach because they are rarely exposed to it within school or the media they consume.

Rick: Why do you think this approach isn’t more common in schools?

Sanda: I think educators have good intentions but that the constraints are significant and the blind spots large, in part because we lack a systemic commitment to cross-partisan civic education. Students tell us they feel schools reinforce left and right orthodoxies rather than engage with divergent perspectives. This is understandable at a time when many, across the political spectrum, feel like our views and values are under attack. But the result is that educators can be reluctant to give credence to less orthodox views on various issues.

Rick: What recommendations do your students have for creating circumstances where they can engage in constructive dialogue?

Sanda: Students’ number one recommendation is to create shared community norms like ours. These agreements include things like, “If you don’t understand something, ask questions,” and, “Take winning off the table.” Then, we ensure that our guidelines have teeth by digging into what they look like in action and how we can respond constructively when things get contentious. This is what helps build tolerant and democratic classrooms within which we can discuss contentious issues.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

This post originally appeared on Rick Hess Straight Up.

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Frederick M. Hess

Direct Ed Policy Studies at AEI. Teach a bit at Rice, UPenn, Harvard. Author of books like Cage-Busting Leadership and Spinning Wheels. Pen Ed Week's RHSU blog.