Equitable Civic Learning for All: How K-12 Schools Can Grow Voters
The following is adapted, with minor changes, from the CIRCLE Growing Voters report and framework published in 2022. We include recommendations for teachers, administrators, and others in the K-12 school ecosystem; jump to the recommendations here.
Schools are a critical setting for learning about elections and voting. School-based opportunities are especially important for youth who lack such opportunities in other areas, like through their personal networks or experiences with media. And as institutions that reach the vast majority of teens, K-12 schools have a critical role to play in reducing disparities and inequities in civic learning and engagement.
Inequities in School-Based Civic Learning are an Enduring Challenge
Our cluster analysis of teens’ access to and experiences with civic learning underscores that point. While youth who we describe as “Reliant on School” were the smallest cluster (13%) of teens in our analysis, 20% of youth of color (including a third of Latino youth) fell in this category, as did a disproportionate share of white youth in rural areas. Crucially, young people are interested in learning about elections, politics, and media literacy in school—particularly when it includes opportunities for personal civic development and engagement.
For example: more than two-thirds of teens in our survey who were enrolled in school at the time said they were interested in learning and talking about the 2020 presidential election. But, as our analysis revealed, these opportunities are not equitably distributed. Among teens who said they were interested, 69% were able to take a course about U.S. government and institutions—meaning almost a third of youth could not. Rural teens whose parents have lower educational attainment were less likely to have access to such courses.
Our survey also showed that most of these in-school civic learning opportunities take place in high school. Among teens who had the opportunity to take a course on U.S. government and institutions, half did so in high school, about 1 in 5 in middle school, and a third were able to take a course at both grade levels. There is both a need and an opportunity to start much earlier; even as early as pre-K or elementary school. Research shows that it is critical to expose young kids to developmentally appropriate civic knowledge, skills, and dispositions that are scaffolded throughout their schooling.
The differences in civic learning experiences between teens in urban and rural areas are especially notable. Teens living in an urban area were 20 percentage points more likely to have taken a course in U.S. government or institutions. They were also more likely to receive higher quality civic education that incorporates best practices, such as deep civics content knowledge, the development of civic skills through classroom discussions on current and controversial issues, media literacy education, and the development of civic dispositions through service learning for informed action or participation in student government.
Previous research by CIRCLE showed that 60% of rural youth perceive that they live a place that lacks accessible civic institutions and opportunities to engage—which we call a Civic Desert. Given these disparities, it’s no wonder that half of teens which our cluster analysis describes as “Civic Learning Neglected” live in rural areas, including 20% of teens of color, and 26% of white rural teens.
It is also critical to improve civic learning and engagement in K-12 schools because less than half of youth will go on to pursue higher education: in 2020, 45% of 18- to 22-year-olds were enrolled in college. Even among those who do, our 2020 survey of 18- to 29- year-olds revealed that there are still differences in access that belie the notion of universities as bastions of civic opportunity and highlight the need to spur civic learning before and beyond the college campus.
For example, our 2020 survey found that only half (52%) of the voting-age young people who were enrolled in a higher education institution said they actually learned about how and where to register to vote while at college. In both K-12 schools and in higher education, the inequities and inconsistencies in civic learning opportunities are an enduring challenge to working toward an equitable multiracial democracy. Both types of institutions must address those challenges, while at the same time contributing to an ecosystem that creates civic access and exposure beyond school settings.
Media Literacy Must Be a Key Part of Civic Education
Media literacy education teaches critical civic skills at a time when overwhelming amounts of content and rampant disinformation characterize the media landscape. In 2020, for example, the combination of a highly visible presidential election, the COVID-19 pandemic, and the resurfacing of deep racial tensions in society drew us all even more online, as we relied on digital media for not only the news, but also connection with our community. Yet even with much of schooling happening virtually, and with these timely opportunities to examine news and media more closely, only about half of teens in our 2020 survey (53%) reported having learned about media literacy or how to analyze news and media.
As with other civic education opportunities, historically underserved communities like teens from rural areas, youth of color, and teens from lower socioeconomic backgrounds have less access to in-school media literacy education. These inequalities may partially be due to unequal broadband access across the country; our analysis of 2016 data shows that broadband access often overlaps, though not entirely, with young people’s perceptions of living in a civic desert. On the other hand, that same analysis found that, in contexts where young people perceive less civic access, digital media can mitigate that lack of access and serve as a pathway to engagement for some youth.
School Culture Matters
The cluster analysis in our CIRCLE Growing Voters report highlights that it’s not just classroom civic learning that influences whether teens feel prepared and empowered to vote: school climate was also related to exposure to learning about elections and voting. Youth in both the “Fully Supported and Engaged” and the “School-Supported and Somewhat Social” clusters reported enjoying highly supportive school climates, high levels of learning about elections and voting in school, and above-average civic engagement. However, only 25% of teens nationwide are in those two clusters, and they’re more likely to be white teens in urban areas and to have a parent with a college degree.
Our teen survey found that white and Black teens were more likely to agree or strongly agree that they felt like they belonged in their school or school community (76% and 75%, respectively) than Latino teens (69%) and multiracial teens (61%). More white teens reported feeling that students were treated equally by adults at their school than Black, Latino, or multiracial teens, and 64% of white teens agreed or strongly agreed that they had opportunities to be involved in decision-making at school—such as helping to decide things like class projects or rules—compared to 57% of Black teens, 55% of Latino teens, and 42% of multiracial teens.
These differences by race/ethnicity highlight how school environments differ greatly in their ability to affirm young people‘s agency and voice through nurturing, democratic practices. The work of CIRCLE Growing Voters is incomplete as long as these inequities persist. A school climate that contributes to a culture of electoral engagement is one in which young people experience the building blocks of democracy. Schools must model civic behaviors that foster acceptance, productive disagreement, critical thinking, input and questioning, community-building, assigning responsibility, and demanding accountability. Teachers and staff must work side by side with young people to ensure that all elements of school life reflect these practices and values. All youth must feel like they belong and matter, not just select (and often advantaged) student groups or leaders.
To that end, a school climate that is conducive to civic learning and engagement must also be especially attentive to the needs of teens from historically marginalized communities, who must perceive that their experiences are being heard and that they are wanted and welcome in democratic decision-making. To contribute to the culture of a CIRCLE Growing Voters ecosystem, schools must also intentionally develop a deeply democratic culture. That culture will directly influence students, the types of pedagogies teachers use, and even the types of administrative and disciplinary policies at the school. It will shape whether the school strongly supports student newspapers and funding for extracurricular activities that foster deeper learning and civic participation outside of the classroom.
Deeper learning practices that foster interpersonal skills (e.g., communication and collaboration) and intrapersonal skills (e.g., self-motivation and persistence) can create a democratic and caring school climate in which students enjoy the psychological safety and openness to experience how they can work together with their peers, teachers, and administrators to address challenges and find solutions together. Recent research also emphasizes that young people need a holistic school environment that incorporates social-emotional learning outside of academic outcomes to develop personal and civic agency. As our recommendations emphasize, adults in young people’s lives—especially teachers and administrators that can mentor and create open and democratic schools—can heavily influence how young people become informed participants in democracy.
We’ve split up our recommendations based on which stakeholders in the school ecosystem are best positioned to implement them: instructors, administrators, school board/committee members, or students themselves. But we expect that all of these groups can and should work together to improve civic learning in their school.
- Incorporate nonpartisan teaching about voting and elections across curricula, so that students are exposed to information about elections multiple times in multiple settings and have a chance to solidify their identity as a voter. The Teaching for Democracy Alliance offers nonpartisan resources for various subject areas.
- Use the Teaching for Democracy Alliance Self-Assessment Matrix to consider which areas of teaching about elections and voting you already cover and where you can link the topic to standards and curricula year-round. History educators should pay particular attention to how students of various backgrounds understand different groups’ fights for voting rights across history. These lessons can clarify for young people the value of the rights they enjoy today.
- Increase the use of (multi-)media creation as a tool for teaching media literacy and civic skills—and to show that social media can be a valuable place for social and political engagement. At the same time, use both youth-created media and traditional news media in the classroom, including by partnering with local media outlets.
- Seek out and share opportunities for your students to become involved in local politics and elections, such as youth poll worker programs, youth advisory boards, or youth-adult partnerships in community improvement efforts.
- Strive to create a learning community in which everyone belongs and contributes their valuable lived civic knowledge to discourse and learning. Students can build agency and a commitment to participate in elections and other aspects of civic life by establishing their sense of belonging and engaging in rigorous civic learning and practice in school. See the Educating for American Democracy Roadmap.
Teaching for Democracy Alliance
The Teaching for Democracy Alliance (TFDA)—a coalition founded by CIRCLE to promote and support the quantity, quality, and equity in nonpartisan teaching about elections in schools—has a wealth of resources for instructors and K-12 leaders. Teachers can find lesson plans, checklists, and more; and administrators can sign the Preparing Future Voters Pledge.
- Make clear to your educators across departments that you support nonpartisan and high-quality teaching about elections and voting for all students. You can do this by ensuring that district subject-area specialists or department chairs are providing time and sample materials for how to do this well, and/or advocating for professional development funds and opportunities that will help teachers feel confident in their teaching about elections. You can sign the Teaching for Democracy Alliance’s Preparing Future Votes Pledge to formalize that commitment.
- Most schools have a Constitution Day or History Day set aside to extend student learning about these topics. Voting should be part of the school curriculum in a similar manner, so that students can learn the history of voting and how the franchise has expanded, in part, because of past youth activism. Activities like mock elections can teach students about the practical aspects of electoral participation.
- Recruit staff at local elections offices or nonpartisan organizations to teach your students about state voting laws and how to run a voter registration drive in your school. These experts can ensure that any such initiatives comply with local election laws.
- Ensure your high school teachers and staff know about opportunities like voter pre-registration or serving as a poll worker, and provide support for educators to leverage these opportunities for learning. If these opportunities don’t exist, reach out to your local election clerks to advocate for a youth poll worker program.
- Support student journalism and free speech through school newspapers, which play a key role in helping students understand that their voices can keep leaders accountable—an important foundation for voter confidence and civic participation.
- Consider forming a student voice committee, a student spot on the school board, or other ways for students to provide input and feedback on how to increase teaching about elections and voting. Partner with a group of young people to build a proposal for your school/district that will ensure a diversity of youth experiences are represented.
School Board/Committee Members
- Ask your constituents (both students and families) how learning activities in their schools are building core skills for democratic participation. If only some students are having meaningful, relevant, and engaging civic learning experiences in the classroom, work with administrators, educators, and students to develop solutions that can expand the reach of these pedagogical practices.
- Check out our recommendations for instructors and administrators, and explore how you and your peers can support them. Create a proposal for a student voice committee, start a school newspaper, or talk to teachers about the kind of teaching you want about elections or what kind of media-making opportunities you find valuable. Partner with (or push!) the necessary stakeholders to make it happen.
- Join or start student organizations and events that can provide you and your peers a forum for discussion about community and school issues (e.g., Urban Debate League); ways to express your views on social issues using multiple mediums (e.g., spoken word, visual arts, videos), or reporting on issues that affect the student body (such as a student newspaper).
- Use a class project to conduct a survey of young people in your school and discover what they want to learn about elections and voting. Bring these findings to teachers and administrators and ask for more teaching about elections and voting.
- Propose running a student-led voter registration drive and get resources and information from election nonprofits, teachers, and administrators. Your ideas and leadership will ensure that voter registration is fun, social, and easy for your peers.
- Ask your community’s elected officials to hold a town hall with students at your school so you and other students can learn more about what your government is doing and share your own ideas and concerns. You can also ask to meet candidates running for office—especially for school board and other positions that most directly shape education and other youth-centered issues.