Professor Joseph Kahne often delves into big ideas in his research. He studies government policy, the purpose of education, youth engagement, and digital media, and — in this fast-changing world — often all of these at the same time.
Kahne’s research and reform work explores ways that educational programs and policies can influence the quality, quantity, and equality of youth civic and political development and participation — especially in this digital age. His efforts to improve education began when he started teaching at a public high school in New York City, right after getting his bachelor’s in economics from Wesleyan University. “I’ve always been interested in the power and importance of education,” he said. “I decided to be a teacher because I saw it as way to be involved and try to help.” He then went back to school to earn his master’s in political science and a Ph.D. in education from Stanford University.
Today, as the inaugural Ted and Jo Dutton Endowed Presidential Chair for Education Policy and Politics in the Graduate School of Education, Kahne is motivated by a deep desire to reform and strengthen schools across the nation. He sits on the steering committee of the National Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools, and is currently the chair of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Youth and Participatory Politics. His research pulls together politics, digital media, and education policy as a way to better prepare youth to participate in our democracy.
You were a high school teacher. How did you end up in your field of education policy?
After college, my first job was teaching at a public high school in New York City. One thing that experience really deepened for me was my desire to work on reform and to try to strengthen schools. It was clear that there are many people working super hard to support kids, and there are many kids for whom their education was just so important. What was challenging [was that] policies weren’t right. There wasn’t enough support for the kinds of reform and improvement that I felt would be helpful.
So after teaching in a public high school, you went to grad school.
Yes. Graduate school deepened my interest in reform as well as my interest in research. And it helped me clarify why working on young people’s civic and political development was so important. What is exciting for me is identifying ways that educators can tap young people’s passions and commitments while, at the same time, highlighting for students ways that what they learn in school can really empower them to pursue societal improvement.
Do you have any examples or ways where you’ve seen your research change education policies?
The research I’ve done has helped identify the kinds of learning opportunities that promote desired civic outcomes — and it’s examined the degree to which all students receive these opportunities. Unfortunately, as educators, we aren’t doing as much in this arena as we might. And low-income students and students of color get significantly fewer of the opportunities that we’ve found to be most effective. In addition, all students need opportunities to engage with people who have different beliefs. Depending on the situation they may try to find common ground, to convince them to change their mind, and to learn from them. Students also need instruction tied to core knowledge so that they understand how government works — how a bill becomes a law. And students need opportunities to imagine effective ways to promote what they believe. In addition, key skills like how to run a meeting, how to engage in a contentious conversation productively, how to do careful analysis, using evidence and argument to reach better conclusions — these are all crucial civic capacities — and they are also important job and life skills. So the fact that education policy often doesn’t focus on those democratic purposes — explicitly and carefully — made me really want to do more to promote democratic goals.
A lot of my work has been on trying to think about how schools can address the democratic purposes of education fully, as a focus for educational policy analysis and evaluation. For example, we are now in the fourth year working with Oakland Unified School District on an initiative we call Educating for Democracy in the Digital Age. Oakland has made a districtwide commitment to prepare all kids for democracy, and educators there have been thinking hard about what that requires. One of the first steps was for a team of teachers to work over the course of a year to develop a framework that emphasized analysis, action, and reflection. They want young people to identify issues they care about, to learn about those issues, to act in ways that promote the priorities they care about, and then to reflect on their efforts. And I very much look forward to learning more about educational efforts in the Inland Empire and about ways to support civic education here.
What is the most challenging part of your work?
Well there’s no doubt that school reform is hard. It’s hard to bring all the players together. It’s hard to find all the resources. But honestly, my job is a lot easier than the job of the people trying to do the work in the schools. There are an enormous amount of conflicting pressures on educators. And there’s generally a lack of adequate resources and support for them. There are also often distractions. So finding ways to be supportive of educators is key.
A lot of your research has to do with digital experiences and translating that into civic engagement. How did that become a subject you’re passionate about?
The growth of young people’s engagement with digital media is incredibly exciting. A big part of that engagement, or one opportunity enabled by that engagement, is expanded opportunities for young people to have a voice and impact on civic issues. Increasingly, many of the core practices of politics and civic life occur online. It’s where young people get their information, it’s where they discuss issues, it’s where money is raised, it’s where people find out about opportunities to become active.
We’ve been thinking hard about ways to prepare young people to take full advantage of those opportunities, and about the challenges that are related to those opportunities. For example, while there’s incredible access to information online, there’s also access to misinformation online. And while online forums create opportunities for dialogue, clearly, sometimes, that dialogue is not as productive or respectful as we want it to be.
We don’t want young people to withdraw from online spaces. We want them to be able to be involved in ways that are effective and satisfying for them.
Which of your research findings are you most surprised by?
The nature of the digital divide is different than many people imagine when it comes to political life. In some ways, phones are more valuable in civic and political life than say, a desktop computer is. And so the fact that phones are becoming ubiquitous, and that phones all have cameras, enable young people to participate powerfully and relatively equitably in online contexts.
How will the Dutton chair help with your research?
I feel so fortunate. The chair provides a fabulous foundation for the kind of work that I want to do. It will enable me to support graduate and undergraduate students on my research projects. And it will provide support for other costs associated with the research and school reform work I plan to do.
Why is UCR the right place for your research?
Certainly, the Inland Empire is a very dynamic place to be. And UCR is expanding and developing in significant ways. That kind of growth is not common among higher education institutions. The university is building on a solid tradition, and it is also clearly a place that is open to exploring new possibilities and taking advantage of opportunities as they develop. That’s super exciting — both in terms of the education we offer and the research work we do. There’s tremendous positive energy on the campus. You can see the campus expanding in exciting ways and focusing on issues and priorities that are fundamentally important for this region of California, but also for the state and nation. I love being part of a university that is tackling big issues while working to deepen understanding and promote meaningful change.
About the Ted and Jo Dutton Endowed Presidential Chair in Education Policy and Politics
Ted and Jo Dutton, Ph.D. ’96, have had a longstanding love affair with the University of California, Riverside.
Jo received her doctorate at UCR: “My husband and I got to know everyone in the Graduate School of Education,” she said. “We respected them; when we had the opportunity to give, we thought, ‘This would be the place to do it.’ UCR is a beacon as far as education goes. It’s part of a very unique system in the state of California, dedicated to research, invention, and innovative ways of thinking. That is the type of thing we wanted to support and help run. There’s nothing like the UC system anywhere in the world.”
She credits former GSOE Dean Doug Mitchell as instrumental to their gift, which resulted in the Ted and Jo Dutton Endowed Presidential Chair in Education Policy and Politics. “My husband and I believe that politics influences everything we do in our lives, including in our educational system. We think people need to realize the importance of politics on policy. Or policy on politics,” she said.
Jo hopes that the endowment will result in educators gaining a knowledge of how all these systems are integrated, so they can use that knowledge to build our educational system up. “We hope that our gift encourages people to do the same thing and support higher education,” Ted says. “Education makes our whole system better, so encouraging people to participate is pretty important.