A Closer View of a Catch-22: An Exploration of Adolescents' Development of Political Engagement and Political Tolerance through an Innovative Curriculum

This study’s primary aim is to examine the mechanisms involved in adolescents’ development of political engagement and political tolerance – two central civic attributes. Building on prior scholarship and theory, we conceptualize political engagement as the composite of three factors: political participation and two of its most consistent predictors, political efficacy and political interest. Meanwhile, we use the established definition of political tolerance: “the extent to which people extend civil liberties and rights to groups and individuals with whom they disagree.” Many social studies educators strive to foster both political engagement and tolerance, but levels of both remain low, with only about 58 percent of the electorate turning out to vote and about 35 percent supporting the rights of an offensive group to speak publicly or teach in public schools.

This study will begin to address this research gap by exploring students’ outcomes and developmental processes during their experiences in an innovative civics curriculum now in use at a dozen schools. The curriculum, known as the “Legislative Semester,” enables students to play the role of Congressional representatives as they explore a wide variety of controversial public issues, such as healthcare, gun ownership rights, and tax policy. In this close longitudinal study of one southern Wisconsin school’s enactment of the Legislative Semester, we will employ qualitative and quantitative methods to identify (1) the ways in which students’ political engagement and tolerance develop during their experience in the program and (2) how teachers can guide and structure the Legislative Semester in ways that foster students’ political engagement and tolerance.

Findings from this study, aligned with the goals of the New Civics initiative, will inform educators’ and researchers’ understanding of how political discussions can be designed and facilitated to most effectively foster adolescents’ political engagement and tolerance.


Completed on July 31, 2015

Contact Information

Brett Levy