The Legislative Semester has been the subject of academic research by Professor Diana Hess of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, as well as serving as the subject of two PhD dissertations by Todd Riemer (Northwestern University) and Louis Ganzler (University of Wisconsin- Madison). This research has confirmed the impressions of teachers and students about the efficacy of the program. Below are links to the published resources and a brief summary of the major findings of their research as related to the Legislative Semester.
The Political Classroom: Evidence and Ethics in Democratic Education (2014) by Diana Hess and Paula McAvoy
NPR Interview with Hess and McAvoy.
Controversy in the Classroom: the Democratic Power of Discussion (2009) by Diana Hess
Dissertation by Louis Ganzler, PhD in Curriculum and Instruction, UW Madison 2010)
"Examining High School Students' Patterns of Visible Participation in a Political Community of Learners"
Dissertation by Todd Reimer, PhD in Learning Sciences, Northwestern University 2003 (PPT)
“...I saw 200 high school seniors do something that the literature in political education told me was lamentably rare: youth enthusiastically and skillfully debating public policy... students were engaged, they were in charge, and they were participating in precisely the kind of activities that experts in democracy education have been publicly advocating for the last decade. "
"None of the programs studied by other researchers blended the essential elements of political analysis, organization, participation and action, together (as did the Legislative Semester)." - Louis Ganzler
Hess and McAvoy: Best Practice Discussion
In The Political Classroom, Hess and McAvoy begin with the premise that "Teaching students to deliberate political issues is an important element of democratic education" (6). The Legislative Semester is centered on deliberation of current controversies, and Hess and McAvoy's text uses the simulation as a case study exemplifying what the authors term "best practice discussion." Classes that fall into this category are those where at least 20% of class time is spent on discussion of controversial political issues, and where discussions are characterized by extensive student-to-student interaction, advance preparation, and broad participation (47). The study includes eleven teachers whose classes were rated "best practice discussion", three of which were using the Legislative Semester curriculum. In addition the sample includes seven teachers who used some discussion, and seven who used a more traditional lecture style.
Analysis of the data, which consists of classroom observations and extensive teacher and student interviews over several years, indicates that students are engaged and learning in all of the Best Practice Discussion classes. Students report that they are learning not just from their teacher, but also from their peers, and that they value hearing multiple perspectives on the issues. Students in these classes were more likely to believe that it is important to understand both sides of an issue before making up their minds about their opinion (52). They are also more likely to "report that they are more interested in politics as a result of the course, more likely to enjoy political talk, and more comfortable with disagreement"(57). Statistical analysis of the data collected in post-course surveys support these findings with participation in Best Practice Discussion courses showing a statistically significant impact on interest in politics, frequency following the news, willingness to listen to those who disagree, and engaging in political disagreement in conversation (59).
In discussing the Legislative Semester specifically, Hess and McAvoy state that, "The way in which students are learning how to be politically engaged [in the Legislative Semester] is unlike anything else we saw in other schools participating in the study"(87). They are especially drawn to the focus placed on inclusive participation by the teachers, and the way that the structure of the curriculum supports inclusivity. They point out that teachers use the first weeks of school to teach "with and for discussion," meaning that students are learning both how to engage in controversial issues deliberation using parliamentary procedure and civil discourse, but that they are also learning content related to the political spectrum, the Bill of Rights, and the foundations of American Government. The rigid structure of parliamentary procedure is one of the critical elements of the curriculum that promotes inclusivity because all members of the class have an equal opportunity to speak and are guaranteed uninterrupted time to explain their ideas when they hold the floor. Further, Hess and McAvoy note that because all students need to learn these new rules of discussion opportunities to participate are equalized. In follow up interviews "nearly every student interviewed spoke about being interested in learning about the diversity of views [among their classmates]" (105).
The Legislative Semester is uniquely able to engage students in political discussion outside the classroom. Even compared to other Best Practice Discussion classrooms, students who had used this curriculum were more likely to report engaging in political talk with friends and family outside of school (99).
Ganzler: Engagement and Political Polarization
Researchers have investigated how participation in the Legislative Semester impacts the political engagement of participants. Some of the key findings relate to both political engagement and more general academic engagement.
"Perhaps most significantly, the enhanced political engagement reported by the students who were enrolled in the Legislative Semester was widespread. Students not previously interested in politics reported dramatically increased levels of interest in politics at the end of the semester. Since the main gap in voting rates is between those who attend college and those who do not, the increased level of political engagement among students regardless of academic achievement is encouraging. This simulation then, potentially offers a pathway to increased political engagement for all students, including those who will not attend college." (Ganzler 189).
Ganzler found that "The Legislative Simulation increased both their interest in polices, as well as their sense of internal efficacy. Research of programs by Kahne and Westheimer did not produce these results." (Ganzler 168).
"Civic education programs that increase students’ internal efficacy as well as political engagement are rare. Educators interested in promoting both types of citizenship outcomes may want to consider using this simulation. (Ganzler 192).
In an era of increased polarization both among legislators and the electorate, schools can play a role in encouraging students to reevaluate their beliefs through deliberation rather than interacting only with those who are likeminded. Research on polarization indicates that polarization increases when people are exposed only to views of those they already agree with.
"This study challenged findings by Campbell (2005) which pointed to diminished opportunities for political conflict in racially heterogeneous classrooms. The students in this study attended a racially heterogeneous high school, and were able to participate in daily activities that were predicated on political conflict. Both the students and the teachers were able to do this because of the structured nature of the simulation." (Ganzler 190)