how schools teach about political parties

According to a new paper released today by CIRCLE:

  • Forty-three states require students to learn about political parties; however, the language in the standards nearly always promotes a simplistic understanding of the role that political parties play in a democracy.
  • Only eight states ask students to study the ideological underpinnings of the two major political parties.
  • Only 10 states ask students to study controversial political issues and their relationship to political parties.
  • There is very limited support for learning about political ideology. When states do include language about ideology, it is most commonly mentioned in history/social studies standards and very rarely linked to contemporary political parties.

“This generation has grown up in a vitriolic and polarized political climate. In order to sort through the noise, young people need to have a deep understanding of the ideological values that divide us and how those values do, and do not, map onto political parties,” reports Paula McAvoy, lead author of the study and program director for the Center for Ethics and Education at UW-Madison, who completed this study with Rebecca Fine and Ann Herrera Ward.  “Our team’s findings show that state standards stop short of asking students to make meaningful connections between partisanship, ideology, and the issues of the day.  If schools are to fulfill their mission of preparing young people for political participation, teachers need to be encouraged to bring these ideas into the classroom.”

“Understanding what major political parties are and what they stand for is essential in navigating politics and elections in the U.S., but very little support exists.  These findings emphasize the need to strengthen standards and support teachers in U.S. civic education,” said Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg, Director of CIRCLE. “Encouraging this type of learning about politics, elections and voting is a major reason why we are collaborating with other organizations to support teachers during this election year via the Teaching for Democracy Alliance.” For more on this Alliance see here.

For CIRCLE’s full briefing, please see here or the interactive map here. More research and background on youth civic education can be found on CIRCLE’s Quick Facts on Civic Education page.

CIRCLE’s 2016 Election Center will continue to offer data products and analyses providing a comprehensive picture of the youth vote, including the Youth Electoral Significance Index, which offers insight into key states where young people have the potential to shape the 2016 general election.

About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.
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