Out of School Engagement in Civic Education and the 2012 Election

By Nora Fleming — October 10, 2012 5 min read
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As we near the final weeks of election season, reports on youth engagement in politics and civic education show a mixed bag.
Findings released today from the Massachusetts-based Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, or CIRCLE, for example, report that many states’ invest little in students’ social studies and civic education. That could be part of the reason that some out-of-classroom organizations have stepped up to fill the voids in many locales. (For more on the findings from the report, read my story here.)

The Mikva Challenge, is one such example of an OST organization working to promote study of and interest in U.S. government and politics, even as high-quality classroom instruction and engagement wanes. The Chicago-based nonprofit organization (nonpartisan) encourages predominantly underserved high school students to become knowledgeable about civics and more engaged through hands-on participation in politics.

The organization both runs programs on the ground and distributes curriculum nationally, such as election lessons it has sent to 43 states that requested it this year. In the Chicago area, more than 5,100 students are served each year, in partnership with close to 100 Chicago-area high schools.

Though participants in the Mikva Challenge are not of voting age, students still become “meaningful actors in politics,” says the organization, by having students serve as judges at polling places on election days, volunteering on political campaigns, and interning in the offices of local officials, to name a few examples. In Illinois alone, upwards of 1,500 young people work as poll judges each election.

The hope is to have participants in on-the-ground programs (20,000 reported to date) continue to participate in the political process through adulthood, they say, especially in local issues they care about.

While the news from today’s report is not all that rosy, according to Peter Levine, executive director of CIRCLE, programs like Mikva Challenge are part of a solution.

I asked Mr. Levine to answer a few questions about strategies for engaging school-aged children in the elections and civic education, focusing on how these strategies apply to out-of-school time. He also offered a few examples on some high-quality programs and predictions on youth voter turnout in this year’s election.

EW: How might programs and environments outside the classroom be helpful in undertaking this?
PL: Discussing issues and politics in the family strongly motivates young people to become informed voters. It also works the other way: When kids come home talking about an election, the parents are more likely to vote. Churches and other religious congregations may not explicitly advocate voting for a particular candidate, but people who are active in religious congregations tend to vote at higher rates. It may be just the social network within the congregation that gets people out on Election Day. The media also has a major role, and some official programs of the news media, like Newspapers in the Classroom, are helpful. Mikva Challenge in Chicago involves some teenagers as nonpartisan poll workers.

EW: What are some strategies for engaging students in national and local races, even if they can’t vote?
PL: Students can read local news, discuss issues, and then vote in a mock election. Many individual teachers do this, and several organizations have provided curricula. Those organizations include Kids Voting and Student Voices, but I am not sure that either is very active in this election cycle. Kids Voting was rigorously evaluated and found to educate the students effectively while also increasing their parents’ likelihood of voting. Elections Canada has an excellent curriculum for that country’s schools that would be worth imitating.

EW: What types of programs or school-based civic education curricula have tended to be most effective? What more can be done?
Both Student Voices and Kids Voting have been found to boost students’ knowledge and interest. The problem is not the availability of such curricula, because there are several good ones. (I would also mention Street Law Inc., the Constitutional Rights Foundation, and iCivics.) The problem is more about demand. As reported by our new study, most states do not require or test anything related to current events, which makes topics like elections a low priority, even if teachers are interested.

EW: Have efforts to engage students in elections and civic education had long-term impacts on their voting behavior when they are of age to vote?
PL: Yes. Alumni of Kids Voting were followed for a few years and found to vote at higher rates in young adulthood. In general, we know that voting is habitual. Once you start, you are much more likely to vote again. So a program that boosts high school students’ engagement would probably pay dividends decades later.

EW: In 2008, significant numbers of younger voters came out to the polls to vote in the presidential race. What’s the prediction for this year on young voters?
PL: A little more than 50 percent of 18-29s voted in 2008. That turnout was driven by very strong support for Barack Obama but tempered by unprecedentedly weak support for John McCain. Current polls show Obama well ahead of McCain among young voters, but he is drawing less support than he did in 2008, while Romney is doing better than McCain did. If I had to guess, I would predict that the turnout will be roughly the same as in 2008, with a more even balance between Democrats and Republicans.

EW: And in the future? Is there more interest now in early engagement around elections, politics, and civic life than in the past?
PL: It’s a mixed picture. I think more organizations and individuals are concerned about these issues and doing their best to help. I think some of the new strategies are very innovative and promising, such as the use of computer simulations to teach politics. On the other hand, as our new study shows, states have cut back a lot on civics requirements, and social studies tests have shifted to exclusively multiple-choice. Neither No Child Left Behind nor Race to the Top did anything positive for civics. So policies have been unhelpful.

Photo 1: Students participating in Mikva Challenge go campaign door knocking in Des Moines, Iowa, last year in the days proceeding the Republican Caucus there. Courtesy of Mikva Challenge.
Photo 2: Peter Levine, executive director of CIRCLE. Photo courtesy of CIRCLE.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Beyond School blog.