How Schools Can Be More Effective at Growing Young Voters

By Sarah D. Sparks — February 20, 2020 6 min read

When students turn 18, they are on the cusp of another performance gap that should grab education leaders’ attention: the voting gap. The youngest voters are 30 percentage points less likely to vote than older voters. Schools can play a critical role in closing this gap.

In a new book, “Making Young Voters: Converting Civic Attitudes into Civic Action,” out today, researchers John Holbein of the University of Virginia and D. Sunshine Hillygus of Duke University make a compelling case that the reason young people fail to vote is not because they don’t care about politics or policy, but because they lack the skills and confidence to translate their ideals into action. Moreover, they say, some key changes to how teachers and education leaders approach civics education could go a long way towards strengthening and expanding the next generation of young voters.

Holbein spoke with Education Week about what the research shows about improving civics and helping K-12 students prepare to be active voters.

EdW: It was pretty shocking to see that most civics classes in the United States have had absolutely no effect on students’ later voting. (See chart.) Has civics just become less effective in encouraging young people to become active citizens than it was in the past?

JH: If you go back all the way to the student cohort that graduated in 1950 … when you look at individual students who took more civics classes in high school, they were no more likely to vote as they became eligible to do so than students who didn’t take civics. I think that’s kind of profound. In our minds we had this idea that there was this time when civics was so much better and really, there was no golden age of civics education.

Do Civics Classes Encourage Voting?

You and Hillygus argue that courses have focused too much on teaching civics facts and history, which has not been shown to change behavior. Why do you think American civics education has focused so overwhelmingly on the cognitive side?

I think the No Child Left Behind performance accountability plays a role. Schools have gotten used to [fact-focused instruction] being the structure of math and reading programs. But I also think—and there’s some evidence from our qualitative interviews with civics teachers—that this is the go-to approach to avoid controversial topics. Right? A lot of civics teachers told us in our interviews that they were terrified of some parents coming and complaining to principals, school boards, [or] superintendents about them discussing climate change or gun policy or, you know, name any contemporary political debate. And so they sort of felt safer in this realm of teaching historical things, teaching things that you could memorize and regurgitate on a bubble-sheet civics exam. I think that’s really a thing.

In the book you talk about the 2016 election as a “Sputnik moment” for civics education. What did you mean by that?

We’ve definitely seen a change since 2016. The election, the Parkland [school] shooting, the March for Our Lives movements as well. We were doing our interviews in 2017, late 2016, and we were hearing this bubbling of discontent among civics teachers. Like we’ve all gotten to this point where we’re kind of dissatisfied with civics and we’re concerned about the current state of the world. And I think there’s just really an opportunity, right? Civics isn’t for the most part engaging and leveraging this type of energy [from student interest in politics], but there is an appetite for change. … There’s a real groundswell of interest in doing civics differently and I think there’s a real dissatisfaction with this sort of bubble-sheet civics that we’ve seen for a long time. I haven’t seen that manifesting in new policy yet for large-scale changes to civics, but definitely, it’s wanted by teachers.

How can schools engage students in civics without imposing activities in a way that might turn them off?

I think it’s fair to worry about compelling people to do things. There’ve been a couple of studies that have looked at various, mostly localized programs like Democracy Prep charter schools … about getting students out and volunteering in the community as a part of their broader curriculum. And those have shown a positive effect for requiring civic engagement. And I’ve also done some work on compulsory voting in Brazil. … Some people worried that compelling young people to vote would have a negative impact on their civic motivation, their engagement in other forms of civic participation. And we don’t actually find that that’s the case. There’s no backfiring going on there. So I would say it’s a viable thing to have as part of their education that students be engaged in their communities.

You mention a number of examples of potentially more effective ways to teach civics. For example, Democracy Prep charters structure their entire schools around civic engagement. But what can schools do without a total overhaul?

It doesn’t need to be the case that schools need to be either a Democracy Prep school or nothing. They can encourage young people to register [to vote] and help them practice going through what is a new and an intimidating process for them.

About the Citizen Z Project

U.S. public education is rooted in the belief by early American leaders that the most important knowledge to impart to young people is what it means to be a citizen.

If America is experiencing a civic crisis, as many say it is, schools may well be failing at that job.

This article is part of an ongoing effort by Education Week to understand the role of education in preparing the next generation of citizens.

See other stories in the Citizen Z series here.

Do you have a great idea for teaching students about civics? Share it with us.

The First-Time Voter program [a separate program from Democracy Prep] was a one-time demonstration in classrooms, just a little bit less than an hour long, giving young people the practical knowledge that they needed to vote. It involved a voting demonstration; talking to [students] about the importance of voting to contemporary issues; really focusing on the practical nuts and bolts about voting itself. So that was like a one-time demonstration and there were some significant positive benefits that came from that. So, I think the lesson learned there is that anything that schools do to move towards applied, practical distillation of the experience, that’s going to help.

We hear a lot about young people just not caring enough to get involved civically, but your interviews with students suggested sometimes the opposite was happening: Students decided not to vote because they worried they didn’t know enough to make a good decision and were afraid of making a mistake. Is that common?

Yeah. So, we were really interested by that finding as well. Young people seem to think they need to know more than they actually need to know when picking politics, whereas older voters seem to not lack that confidence. I think there’s something to be said about experience, right? Older citizens are like, ‘Oh yeah, I know how that works. I know what that process looks like.’ For young people, it’s just intimidating and kind of scary, especially for many of them growing up in households that don’t talk about politics and don’t hear about contemporary politics in their schools very much. The idea of being plunged into the deep end of voting was kind of intimidating.

There is a certain piece of confidence and self-efficacy that needs to be a part of a civics curriculum, because this lack of confidence is really striking to us. I can imagine a world where schools are giving young people the opportunity to overcome some of these fears: ‘Oh, I know how a voting booth works, we’ve done that in class;’ or ‘Oh, I know what’s going on in politics [in this referendum] because in class we read these newspaper articles. …’ I don’t think you can actually fill the entire [civics] gap this way. But I think there is a certain piece of confidence and self-efficacy that needs to be a part of civics curriculum because this lack of confidence is really striking to us.

A version of this article appeared in the March 11, 2020 edition of Education Week as An Author’s Advice on Growing Young Voters


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