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Supporting K-12 Administrators is Key to Growing Voters

With generous philanthropic support, two CIRCLE-led initiatives in 2023 helped educators strategize how to support teaching for democracy.

Authors: Naraya Price, Noorya Hayat
Contributors: Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg, Alberto Medina


An equitable and effective K-12 civic education that includes nonpartisan teaching about elections is necessary to grow voters for a more representative democracy. CIRCLE’s research and partnerships to strengthen civic learning are explicitly aimed at helping all stakeholders in school communities provide those educational opportunities. Whether we are supporting and evaluating professional development for teachers, or the implementation of new civic education standards or curricula, one constant finding is the need for school administrators to champion and concretely support education for democracy.

In 2023, thanks to generous support from the Bernard & Audre Rapoport Foundation and the Lisa and Douglas Goldman Fund, we were able to strengthen two initiatives to reach school administrators and leaders. One, led by the Teaching for Democracy Alliance (which is coordinated by CIRCLE) was an intensive Preparing Future Voters learning series for school leaders—specifically from the southern United States. The other was a Summer Institute on Educating for Informed and Equitable Voting for 10 administrators from across the U.S. in partnership with Civic Engagement Research Group (CERG) at UC-Riverside. Across both of these efforts, we pursued the following objectives:

  1. Understanding and elevating the role of schools, school leaders, and educators in educating for an informed democracy
  2. Disseminating best practices, tools, and concrete strategies to support teachers in understanding and feeling confident in fulfilling their role in preparing future voters
  3. Leveraging the roles and capacity of additional school and community stakeholders in educating for democracy.

Two Supportive Learning Communities

Our goal was to create spaces to share data, insights, and resources on how K-12 leaders can support more effective civic learning. The Preparing Future Voters (PFV) featured sessions focused on:

  • Grounding participants in the importance of educating for an informed democracy through data, establishing a professional learning community, and sharing strategies for deeper discussion that students and faculty could utilize.
  • A roundtable discussion with exemplar practitioners in which participants were able to ask questions about their unique challenges to educating for an informed democracy and learned ways in which they could adapt their practices for different audiences
  • An action planning workshop where we helped participants understand their sphere of influence and build out their next steps for educating for an informed democracy

The 2023 Summer Institute for Informed and Equitable Voting featured deep dives with experts on relevant topics. Sessions focused on: the role of schools and administrators in supporting educating for elections and voting; myths and trends in youth voting, and how to support electoral engagement; how schools and administrators educate for a diverse democracy with increasing hyperpolarization affecting schools and students; and dynamics that constrain informed and equitable voting.

The intensive program brought in different evidence-based frameworks for school administrators to use the latest data and research in crafting a plan for their school district. Each fellow designed an action plan to implement the following fall, received feedback from the course instructors, and discussed their ideas with peers. Focus group discussions with fellows later in the fall created opportunities to discuss implementation success and challenges.

Lessons, Opportunities, and Next Steps

Through both the PFV learning series and the summer institute, we identified, shared, and worked through lessons and opportunities for growth that can inform the work of educating for democracy going forward.

First: administrators now better understand that they have power and influence to holistically integrate teaching about elections and voting and to support educators, including by partnering with local institutions like election officials or community-based organizations that can bring programming and resources into the classroom. They can start small, eventually scaling initiatives across schools and helping to build bridges with parents and community. Frameworks like the Educating for American Democracy Roadmap and CIRCLE Growing Voters are helpful in guiding their strategic thinking about how to achieve positive outcomes.

Participants in our sessions and learning communities also identified key needs and opportunities, like better communicating the importance of educating for democracy to other stakeholders and getting adequate buy-in. Administrators often cited a need for improved coordination between various parts or stages of the school ecosystem; one participant was focused on bringing civic learning to elementary and middle schools because of the lack of opportunities at the high school level. School leaders also talked about ways to overcome potential resistance from parents or communities who may see education about voting and potential partnerships with local government or community groups as partisan.

Some administrators also highlighted the need but difficulty of fostering classroom discussions about controversial topics and adequately including diverse perspectives—especially in contexts like rural areas. Others pointed to a preexisting lack of student interest and engagement with civic life. In addressing both of these challenges, we shared with participants the importance of developing students’ civic identities through tools like media literacy, teaching history through an inquiry based-framework, and providing experiential learning opportunities that connect students’ identities to the political process. 

Students need and deserve civic learning opportunities that prepare them to participate in the 2024 elections—whether they’re already eligible to vote or not—and in the future of our democracy. Educators need support to provide students with those opportunities, especially in extremely challenging educational and political contexts. CIRCLE’s work engaging with these and other educators to provide that support will continue as part of our efforts to ensure all young people can become informed and engaged participants in democracy.