Civic Learning Week: Brookings Institution Spotlights Debate Disparity

Middle School Debaters

Students in our middle school debate program partake in civic learning while competing at area tournaments. | Photo Credit: Marina Que

Did you know? Less than half of US high schools offer debate, and only 27% of majority low-income schools do.

It’s Civic Learning Week, so the The Brookings Institution examined what civics-focused extracurricular activities are available across the US. The picture isn’t pretty, but we are proud to be part of the solution in Minnesota, bringing debate to more than 1,300 students.

Learn more about the disparity at the Brookings Institution Report. 

Brookings Institute figure

According to the Brookings Institution,

In a concerning pattern, high-poverty schools (those in which half or more of students were eligible for free or reduced-price lunch) were less likely than their low-poverty counterparts to offer a range of civics-focused extracurricular activities (see Figure 2). For example, 85% of low-poverty high schools offered student government, compared with 73% of high-poverty high schools. The offerings gap between low- and high-poverty schools was largest for model UN (20 percentage points), followed by debate teams (18 percentage points) and student-run news outlets (17 percentage points). And although the difference in offerings between low- and high-poverty schools was not always statistically significant, we observed the same pattern for all the civics-focused extracurricular activities we examined.

What isn’t surprising is that Brookings Institution categorizes debate as a civic learning activity. The premise of our form of debate is that students imagine what policies the United States Federal Government should implement to solve a contemporary problem. Debaters must research, write, and argue cases on both the affirmative (pro) and negative (con) side of each issue. Topics in recent years have ranged from issues pertaining to international politics (i.e. South China Sea or NATO and cybersecurity) and domestic social issues (education reform, criminal justice reform, and immigration form). This year’s resolution, “The United States federal government should substantially increase fiscal redistribution in the United States by adopting a federal jobs guarantee, expanding Social Security, and/or providing a basic income,” shows clear and obvious relevance to civic systems in the USA. Dylan Ek, social studies teacher and assistant debate coach at Tartan High School, explains:

“As a Social Studies educator, it is my responsibility to teach the students about what is going on in the real world and how it relates to their lives. The topic this year (economic inequality) engages students far better than I am able day to day. It gets them interested and tells them why it impacts their lives.”

We are living a crucial moment for civic engagement. In our ever-changing world, students need skills like critical thinking and knowledge of how our civic systems work. Against the odds, we’ll keep working with our dedicated coaches, staff, volunteers, and supporters to bring this opportunity to Minnesota students.