Can Tolerance Be Taught? David Campbell

Published December 1, 2001

Since the rationale for establishing the common schools was to instill American values, it’s entirely appropriate to ask: How well are the public schools achieving that aim? That question in turn leads to a flood of others:

  • How well do our K-12 schools educate students for living in a constitutional republic?

  • What do our schools teach about the unique freedoms of expression and inquiry that are fundamental to our Western civilization–and not to others?

  • How do different types of schools educate students in terms of tolerance and the democratic values essential to the functioning of our republic?

These are not new questions for Harvard University education researcher David E. Campbell, who is currently a visiting fellow at the Center of Democratic Politics at Princeton University and a Ph.D. candidate in political science at Harvard.

He developed an interest in the civic component of K-12 education during his undergraduate work in political science at Brigham Young University. Before graduating with a B.A. in 1996, he wrote an honors thesis on how people learn about politics.

In pursuing graduate studies at Harvard University, Campbell became a research associate in the Program on Education Policy and Government, where he worked with Paul Peterson, William Howell, and Patrick Wolf on a series of ground-breaking analyses of the effects of school vouchers. A class of Peterson’s further stimulated Campbell’s interest in the question of how different types of schools deliver civic education, which he saw as a relatively neglected but vitally important area of research.

Campbell has presented his work at a number of professional conferences; is coauthor of several of the school voucher studies from Harvard’s PEPG program; has written numerous articles, reports, and book chapters on education research; and is the recipient of several awards. He recently spoke with School Reform News Managing Editor George Clowes.

Clowes:Opponents of school choice assert public schools are the only institutions that can educate citizens for living in a democracy. Could you address that claim?

Campbell: That claim is tied up in the history of why it is we have public or common schools in America. One of their initial justifications was that we needed to take people who were new to America’s shores, or at least their children, and teach them American mores and American citizenship.

Ironically, many of the things that were being taught at that time had religious overtones–Protestant overtones–which prompted many Catholics to send their children to Catholic schools. Today, most people don’t expect their public schools to spout any kind of religious belief, but there still is this idea that it is a melting pot, the common school where we bring people together.

Of course, the question is whether that’s actually true. Is it true that public schools do a better job at all of those things we think constitute good citizenship than do private schools?

My research suggests that, for the most part, private schools–and in particular, Catholic schools–do a little better job than public schools. The fact they don’t do any worse is perhaps what’s most surprising to those who believe the public schools are the only place where good citizenship can be taught.

A lot of the charges that are thrown around regarding public versus private schools are really about what we think those terms mean.

When we use the term “public” to refer to a school in the United States, it implies anybody can attend that school. For the most part, that’s not true. It’s “public” in the sense the funds for it come from tax revenues, but almost every public school in America draws its school body from a fairly narrow geographic area.

That means that, in exclusive suburbs, the “public” schools are just as private as any “private” school. To attend them, you have to own a home in that area . . . and that can be an expensive proposition.

On the other side, many schools referred to as “private” have no particular geographic jurisdiction. Many parochial schools don’t even have a requirement that you be a member of their particular faith to attend. Obviously, you need to agree to adhere to the rules of the school, which are tied up with its religious mission, but, in many cases, these “private” schools are not selecting people simply on the basis on their religious beliefs. And in many cases, the tuition is quite low.

If what you’re really concerned about is putting students in an environment where they’re confronted with people with different ideas and different backgrounds and all that, it’s not clear your typical suburban public school accomplishes that. Or, if it does, I’m not sure it does so any better than the private school model, which has people from a much wider geographic area choosing to attend that school–perhaps because of their religious beliefs, perhaps because of the academic flavor of the school, or perhaps because of the discipline.

Clowes: Using the terminology of voucher critics, do children who attend these non-public schools turn out to be more racist, separatist, or segregationist than those who attend public schools?

Campbell: I think that is totally off base. In the data I’ve used, from a 1996 U.S. Department of Education survey, there are a variety of questions relating to various components of civic education, including whether or not students have learned the skills necessary to be involved civically.

That is something political scientists are particularly concerned about–whether people have skills such as being able to write a letter, give a speech, participate in debates, and so on. The survey also has questions on how much people know about the political process, as well as some questions about “political tolerance,” which would be a respect for the civil liberties protected by the First Amendment.

These questions are typically structured to name a specific unpopular group with an unpopular point of view–for example, a group that’s against churches and religion, or one that wants to legalize drugs. People then are asked questions like, “Do you think such persons should be allowed to live in your neighborhood?” “Should they be allowed to write a book that would be in your library?” “Should they be allowed to speak publicly?” and “Should they be allowed to run for President?”

What we find, after accounting for every possible confounding factor, is that, for the most part, students in private schools score higher on political tolerance than students in public schools. That’s true particularly in Catholic schools, but it’s also true in private secular schools.

The one exception to that is students who are in religious schools that are not Catholic, which is a bit of a clumsy category because there are lots of different types of schools there. But, unfortunately, that’s as far as the data let me break it out.

In the voucher research I’ve done with Paul Peterson, William Howell, and Patrick Wolf, we found that sometimes there seems to be an effect on political tolerance after a year or two. But in a study Peterson and I have done nationally, we’ve actually just found that, after one year in a voucher program, students in grades 6, 7, and 8 score higher on a political tolerance measure than students in public schools. And that’s all private schools together.

So, the evidence seems to be building that private schools do at least as well, and probably a little better, at teaching political tolerance than public schools.

There is a likely reason for is. Other research has shown that this idea of political tolerance is related to cognitive performance. The more you learn about all sorts of things, the more you begin to appreciate this element of our Constitutional protections.

So if schools are doing a better job of teaching civics or social studies, then we might expect students to have a better appreciation of this one component of civic education.

Clowes: So what you’re saying is that political tolerance is related to cognitive performance.

Campbell: Yes, and other research has shown that, too.

This idea of political tolerance has been around for a long time, and there’s been a fair amount of research on the question of what is it that leads people to be, as one author puts it, “democratically enlightened.”

We’ve long known that the blunt measure of how much education you have is a really strong predictor of how politically tolerant you are. One prominent political scientist has argued quite convincingly that what makes you politically tolerant is this cognitive performance– this idea that you’ve learned a lot about how our Constitutional protections work. And it’s probably what drives other elements of political involvement, too.

Among philosophers, and even the Founders themselves, there’s a common theme that in order for democracy to function, there needs to be a common base of knowledge, and we’ve also found empirically that’s true. People who are more aware of what’s going on, people who just simply know more about American politics, or politics in general, are just better citizens on almost every measure.

This idea of political tolerance is something many academics, many political scientists, consider to be important. There are other reasons to think it’s perhaps not the most important element in a democratic society.

I think these other components of civic education are important as well. There’s probably a point at which we become too tolerant. Maybe not on the specific question of the First Amendment, but more broadly when we need to stand up and say one thing is right and another thing is wrong.

Sometimes I fear we’ve veered too far in the direction of honoring tolerance above all when there are other values that are probably just as important. For example, I would hope schools are teaching judgement as well as fostering tolerance. Admittedly, it’s a tricky thing to navigate.

Clowes: Could the students who go to Catholic schools in general be predisposed to be good citizens because they come from families that are civic-minded?

Campbell: That’s the question anybody doing this sort of research has to grapple with.

I should begin by saying that the null hypothesis–the conventional wisdom, the general expectation–would probably be that people who attend a private school would be less tolerant because of the image of private schools as being insular and exclusive.

Using data from the U.S. Department of Education, I’m able to account for essentially every possible confounding factor, but that still leaves the possibility there’s something we haven’t accounted for. And that’s where our randomized field trial comes in, using data collected nationally from the Children’s Scholarship Fund.

When you do a randomized field trial, you can be sure the results are being driven by switching from a public to a private school, because you have a legitimate control group. It’s randomized, which means the only thing that determines whether you get a voucher or not is whether or not you win the lottery. All of the people in the study have applied for a voucher. Some get vouchers, some don’t.

In this particular study, we weren’t subjecting the students to a standardized test. Instead, we were asking public opinion survey questions, like the ones about political tolerance.

Clowes: And you found that after grades 6, 7, and 8, the students who received vouchers to go to private schools had a higher level of political tolerance than the students who didn’t get vouchers and stayed in public schools?

Campbell: That’s right. It makes sense to look at the older grades because that’s where students start learning about the political process. It doesn’t make a lot of sense to ask a fourth-grader about civil liberties, but when they get up into the late elementary, early junior high years, that’s when those ideas start coming together in their minds.

Clowes: What do you see as the major priorities for school choice research over the next few years?

Campbell: In the short term, Paul Peterson and the others and I are continuing to look at who’s interested in school choice.

Terry Moe has just written a book that looks at this in the hypothetical case, asking people in a telephone survey, “If there were a nationwide voucher program, do you think you’d be interested in putting your child in a different school?” What we can do with the Children’s Scholarship Fund data is find out who’s actually interested.

We have extensive survey data from the families who applied for the Children’s Scholarship Fund. We also administered the survey to a random sample of the United States population who in theory would be eligible for the Children’s Scholarship Fund but didn’t apply for it. These are families with incomes falling within the required range and with children of the appropriate age. What are the differences between these two groups? Why is one group interested and the other not?

We’ve written one paper on this and we’re continuing to explore it. We’re finding some interesting things.

For example, we haven’t seen any substantial educational differences between parents who apply and parents who don’t. It’s not demographics that leads people to apply–it’s dissatisfaction with the child’s public school. That finding addresses the fear that a voucher program would cream the best students and take the most motivated parents out of the public schools. We haven’t found that.

On the broader question of where I think school research should go: One thing we need to know more about is why some schools do better than others, on test scores, or discipline, or civic education. We haven’t done a good job of determining that. There’s no reason why we can’t do it, and we ought to. I think that’s the next big step that has to be taken.

For more information . . . The following Web sites have further information on David Campbell’s work and on civic education: — an organization dedicated to civic education — the unabridged version of Campbell’s paper, “Bowling Together,” in Education Next. — offers a paper by Campbell on civic participation.