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Beyond door-knocking and political ads: How can increasing K–12 civic education get-out-the-vote during future elections?

Laura Hamilton Associate Vice President, Research Centers

Several high-profile midterm primary elections have amplified the ongoing national debate about how to engage and inform voters. Although get-out-the-vote efforts focus, naturally, on those who have reached the minimum voting age of 18, we should not neglect educating and engaging the next generation of U.S. voters — students enrolled in K–12 schools across the country.

Turnout in midterm elections and in primaries is often low, particularly among younger Americans. These trends suggest that young people[1] might be unaware of the potential impacts of these elections at the local, state and national levels even while they’re expressing significant concerns about the future of their country. Tackling this challenge will require education not only on the composition and roles of various government agencies and institutions, but on the critical role that all Americans play in supporting these agencies and institutions. Moreover, urgent societal trends including growing awareness of widespread systemic racism, the urgency of addressing climate change, the spread of misinformation and disinformation along with a fractured media landscape and ever-increasing partisanship have raised the stakes for the next generation of American citizens and voters.

We can begin to address these issues through improved civic learning in K–12 schools. Civic learning in this context goes well beyond what is typically taught in high school government classes and  incorporates the following outcomes:

  • Civic knowledge of government structure and processes, history and other relevant social studies concepts, including the ways that history has influenced current societal conditions.
  • Civic skills, such as critical thinking, communication, collaboration, research skills and media literacy, that enable students to engage in democratic processes.
  • Civic dispositions that are crucial for effective democratic engagement, including sense of civic duty, concern for the welfare of others and sense of agency.
  • Civic engagement through which people apply civic knowledge, skills and dispositions to solve societal problems and improve conditions in communities.

Educators in K–12 schools have an opportunity and a duty to help prepare young people — our future voters — to thrive and contribute to our democratic society, but they can’t do this alone. Fortunately, education researchers, policymakers and practitioners in recent years have developed supports and resources to promote civic learning in schools. The Educating for American Democracy (EAD) initiative has been a leading voice in this effort, publishing the Roadmap to Educating for American Democracy and the Pedagogy Companion to the EAD Roadmap. These resources provide educators with guidance for inquiry-driven content and instructional strategies for K–12 history and civics education across the United States.

ETS is proud to be an EAD Champion. ETS’s mission to “advance quality and equity in education,” and our partnership with EAD has enabled us to contribute to evidence-based guidance on promoting and assessing civic learning in ways that will improve both quality and equity. A key aspect of this work, which draws on our core areas of expertise, involves exploring ways to improve assessments of both learning outcomes and learning opportunities in civics.

To that end, in July 2021, ETS partnered with EAD to host a symposium on monitoring civic-learning opportunities and outcomes, and we recently released a joint-report with EAD that summarizes key lessons from the symposium. The symposium, and other recent research, points to several specific strategies that educators and those who support them can leverage to improve civic learning for all young people.

Monitor civic-learning opportunities and outcomes.
A common theme throughout the ETS/EAD symposium was the lack of assessments that could be used to monitor the wide range of opportunities and outcomes that are relevant to civic learning. The only national assessment of civic outcomes is National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), which is currently administered only to eighth-graders intermittently. Moreover, we lack systematic data on learning opportunities, and we do not have ways to assess many complex competencies such as digital information literacy. Researchers and developers at ETS and other organizations are working to address these gaps using innovative approaches, but we have a long way to go.

Promote equity in opportunities to engage in civic learning.
Research conducted by CIRCLE at Tufts University finds that “the preparation many young people receive (or fail to receive) to become informed voters is inadequate, leading to significant variations in voting rates by race/ethnicity, educational attainment and other socioeconomic and demographic factors.” Although school-based learning is only one source of these differences, a systematic effort to ensure that all young people participate in high-quality civic learning can mitigate this problem. The previous point about monitoring is relevant here: We cannot ensure equity without measuring it.

Help educators integrate civic learning into academic instruction and other activities.
The wide-ranging definition of “civic learning” presented above makes it clear that these competencies can be developed through mechanisms beyond high school government courses. Teachers of English, science and mathematics, for example, can address civics in ways that are aligned with discipline-specific goals, promoting competencies such as information literacy and perspective-taking regardless of student grade level. Extracurricular activities or schoolwide events such as mock elections and service learning can also promote civic learning, if done thoughtfully.

Improve assessment of civic learning in the classroom.
To inform their instruction, teachers need to assess their students’ learning to understand what works well and for whom, and where additional supports or different approaches might be helpful. Curriculum-aligned, formative assessment tools, accompanied by professional learning opportunities, are key to high-quality civic learning. ETS and other assessment organizations are exploring new ways to assess civic learning in the classroom, such as through scenario-based digital tasks. And informal strategies, particularly those that promote youth voice, can also inform teaching and learning.

Increase buy-in by leveraging connections to employability skills and long-term student success.
Convincing schools to prioritize civics can be a tough sell. Teachers report several obstacles to civics instruction, including a need to prioritize other subjects that is undoubtedly related to how we measure school performance in the United States. Moreover, legislation and public debates regarding topics such as critical race theory and social and emotional learning can make it difficult for schools to get buy-in for civics-related topics. At the same time, the definition presented above makes it clear that civic learning includes topics and skills that overlap with social and emotional development and that are connected to success in later education and work experiences. By communicating with parents and others about these connections and the evidence base that supports them, educators and policymakers can mount  a credible argument for increased emphasis on civics learning and engagement.

Young Americans are increasingly skeptical of the benefits of democracy due in no small part to a deeply uncertain future for our economy, our planet, and our society and the civil unrest that continues to erupt. Meanwhile, schools now find themselves at the center of partisan battles about what gets taught, how, and to what extent and by whom. With our democratic institutions at stake, we must not only work to mobilize the young voters of today, but we must help educators across the nation prepare the voters of tomorrow. Our guidance on civics assessment, the EAD Pedagogy Guide, and other resources provide a starting point. But real progress will take the concerted and coordinated efforts of researchers, developers, funders, policymakers, and of course educators and schools to empower young people to make a difference, including by exercising their right to vote.

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1 https://www.nytimes.com/2020/10/08/upshot/youth-voting-2020-election.html