The Commission on Youth Voting and Civic Knowledge (update)

Today I am traveling from Boston to DC to speak and then on to Atlanta for the American Association of Colleges & Universities meeting. In DC, I will present some information about youth political participation. CIRCLE is busy collecting and assembling data for the Commission on Youth Voting and Civic Knowledge that we have formed. The Commission will deliberate and come up with its own conclusions, but some basic premises are already clear.

First, with support from the S.D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation, we have collected and coded all state laws and policies relevant to civic education. Most states have civics requirements, but I would say that none has a system of assessment that supports and encourages good teaching. The few states that have high-stakes civics tests rely almost exclusively on multiple-choice questions about facts.

Then, during the election, we conducted two waves of a national Knowledge Networks youth survey that tracked young people’s opinions on issues and their degree of engagement with the campaign. Perhaps the most salient finding for the Commission is that most young people did not know the pertinent election laws in their own states. This is a summary of the poll.

On the day after the election, we calculated youth turnout (50%) and followed that with some additional analysis of the available turnout statistics. These CIRCLE posts summarize some interesting headlines:

We also tried a very quick-and-dirty method for investigating the relationships between state laws and turnout . We looked at whether states that had changed their civic education policies or voting laws also saw changes in youth turnout. There were no real signs of a relationship, which points to some interesting challenges that I will return to below. (See our quick analysis of state voting laws and state education laws.)

Starting immediately after the election, with funds from the Spencer Foundation, we surveyed 4,483 young Americans, ages 18-24, with large African American and Latino oversamples and a minimum of 75 respondents in each state. This was a random-digit telephone survey, reaching cell phones and landlines and conducted in Spanish or English.

We will use the results to build a multivariate model in which state policies, state political factors, young people’s demographics and backgrounds, and their civic experiences (both in and out of school) are used to predict their turnout and their knowledge of politics.

We already know from our initial analysis that both knowledge and voting are strongly correlated with whether individuals recall civic education experiences that we would define as “high quality.” That correlation is not adjusted (yet) for other factors, such as socioeconomic advantage or community-level differences. It is well known that advantaged students receive better civic education, so the apparent impact of civics may diminish once we incorporate controls. Nevertheless, we thought the correlations were noteworthy. At the least, we know that students who become active citizens typically have experienced better-than-average civic education in school.

Additional research for the Commission includes a literature review (already released), a planned national survey of civics/government teachers, and interviews with stakeholders that will be conducted “on the record” so that they can inform the final report.

Speaking just for myself (and welcoming debate), I would hypothesize that high-quality civic education and being contacted by political campaigns and movements both boost young people’s knowledge and engagement to a meaningful extent. However, existing state laws related to civic education and voting do not seem to affect the rate at which these positive experiences occur, at least not to an impressive degree. It is possible that deeper analysis will reveal important differences in current state laws and policies. But it is also possible that existing state laws don’t vary enough or are all too poorly designed to provide models that deserve to be replicated. If no existing state laws are impressive, we may need to think about other levers (not just state laws) and about research-based proposals for entirely new laws and policies.

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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