Millennial Must-Read: New Report Highlights Importance of Civic Education to Healthy Democracy

Authored by IOP Director Trey Grayson.

What are young people learning about politics in schools? How can we improve the classroom learning experience? Are youth potentially the solution to partisan gridlock in Washington?

Today, I joined several of my colleagues on the bipartisan Commission on Youth Voting & Civic Knowledge in releasing a new report to address these and other questions on strengthening the civic knowledge and participation of young Americans.  Our commission is coordinated by CIRCLE, a nonpartisan, independent, academic research center at Tufts University that studies young people in politics and presents detailed data on young voters in all 50 states. The IOP has partnered with CIRCLE in the past on a Civic Health Index for Massachusetts, and more recently the Millennial Civic Health Index

The groundbreaking new study “All Together Now: Collaboration and Innovation for Youth Engagement,” contains specific recommendations on how to increase civic understanding and involvement.  The report is based – in part – on data from more than 6,000 young adults, more than 700 high school civics or government teachers and a comprehensive post-election survey that provides great insights about the civic knowledge, voting behavior, and beliefs of young Americans under the age of 30.

Unfortunately, young people today are forced to form their impressions of politics and public life by observing a hyper-partisan and unproductive Washington, D.C. – currently ground to a halt with the recent budget and government shutdown.  Looking at such gridlock, it might be easy to expect the next generation to check-out and sit on the sidelines – but we can’t afford it.  Our nation is facing serious challenges.  We need them in the game. 

Although nearly all of the educators we talked with agreed that it is important to teach students about the responsibilities of citizenship (98%), many also cited the many challenges they face in working to achieve this goal – including not having enough classroom time and a hesitancy for discussing controversial issues.

Our new report’s findings also disclose the degree of parental pushback when political topics arise in social studies classrooms.  For example, a quarter of teachers said they believed parents or community members would object to political discussions in a course on government or civics, and more than one-in-ten said they believed parents would object if they encouraged students to vote.  We need to help teachers facilitate conversations about difficult and current issues, which are especially rare in schools serving students from diverse backgrounds.  Creating a framework where these discussions are supported will allow students to feel comfortable taking civic actions and also narrow gaps in political knowledge and engagement. 

To change the game, the report encourages policymakers to embrace innovative and collaborative approaches to civic education. Examples of recommendations from the report include:

  • Lower the voting age to 17 in municipal or state elections so that students can be encouraged to vote while they are taking a required civics class.
  • Adopt policies that support teachers’ obligations to include discussions of current, controversial political issues in the curriculum.  For example, assigning students to read and debate news in class and encouraging them to discuss with their parents and other adults who are important in their lives.
  • Establish/Develop state standards for civics that focus on developing advanced civic skills, such as deliberation and collaboration, rather than simply memorizing facts.
  • Award virtual badges for excellence in civics. These portable, online certificates would demonstrate advanced civic skills, knowledge, and actual contributions.

Making the classroom learning experience more effective can foster greater civic participation.  A clear relationship existed between respondents’ high school civics education experiences and their knowledge of campaign issues and political participation in the 2012 presidential election. Young people who recalled high-quality civic education experiences in school were more likely to vote, to form political opinions, to know campaign issues, and to know general facts about our political system.

I was excited to join this effort because all too often we talk about issues such as voting and civic education – but don’t have the data necessary to draw the right conclusions.  These issues are really important to me, and have been for some time. 

They were a major part of my platform when I ran for Secretary of State in Kentucky in 2003, and I have maintained this commitment here at the Institute of Politics, which offers a number of programs aimed at promoting civic education and knowledge including: our “National Campaign for Political and Civic Engagement,” a consortium of twenty-three colleges and universities committed to creating more politically and civically engaged campuses; a CIVICS program bringing Harvard undergraduates into local middle schools to expand on students’ understanding of American government; and a unique, nationwide polling project measuring the civic and political engagement of America’s Millennial generation. 

I encourage you to study the commission report’s results, which I believe can help us understand how to better involve young Americans – a crucial constituency in electoral politics – in Democracy.