Civic education makes ‘a powerful difference’ in creating young voters

Wisconsin is one of the few states that does not require high school students to take a civics course; studies show that can lead to more political engagement

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Emily Hamer/Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism

From left, Madison West High School students Maia Ramirez, 17, Sofia Johansson, 16, Maya Williamson Schaffer, 16, and Ella Kunstman, 16, grab information on voting during a voter registration drive organized by the League of Women Voters of Dane County on March 7, 2019. The four are members of the Get it Done Club, which recently organized a mayoral forum at the school. Although too young to vote themselves, the girls say they encourage their friends to vote and are excited about casting ballots in the 2020 presidential election.

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While youth get-out-the vote efforts often focus on college campuses, experts say starting in high school may be a more promising strategy for creating engaged voters.

“It’s not going to change things overnight, but I think if there was one thing that the community or country could do to invest in youth participation in voting, I think improving civic education is probably the first thing,” said John Della Volpe, director of polling at the Harvard Kennedy School Institute of Politics. “And then everything else kind of flows from there.”

Wisconsin is among the few states that does not require high school students to take a civic education course before graduating. Wisconsin requires high school students to have three years of social studies. High school students also are required to pass a civics test to graduate — the same 100 questions that immigrants must answer to gain citizenship.

Emily Hamer / Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism

Madison West High School student Maya Williamson Schaffer, 16, wears a “future voter” sticker on March 7, 2019. Williamson Schaffer, who helped organize a mayoral forum at her school, said she wants to create a culture among students that voting is an obligation.

Schools must teach students about the levels of government, the responsibilities of being a citizen, founding documents such as the Constitution and “skills to participate in political life.” But since the state does not require this to be a separate course, civic education is often built into other classes.

“As somebody who was a high school social studies teacher … it’s extremely difficult to do a good job as a history teacher and also at the same time have the time to do everything that needs to happen in a high-quality civics class,” said Diana Hess, dean of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s School of Education. “You’re just cramming way too much into a course.”  

Jeff Miller / University of Wisconsin-Madison

Diana Hess, dean of University of Wisconsin-Madison’s School of Education, said high-quality civic education “makes a powerful difference” in prompting young people to participate politically.

Hess said her own research shows that high-quality civic education makes “makes a powerful difference” in prompting young people to participate politically. That is why, she said, almost every other state in the United States requires a standalone civics course.

Hess pointed to Middleton High School, whose sophomores form their own state Legislature, as one example of a high-quality civic education program. Teaching students to have rich discussions about controversial political issues is another, Hess said.

In a study from 2005-09, Hess and a colleague worked with 21 schools in three states, including Wisconsin, to see the effect of discussing controversial political issues in the classroom. In classrooms that used the “best practice” for discussion, students were more likely to report they would vote in every election in the future, compared to students in lecture-style classrooms.

Connie Flanagan, associate dean of the UW-Madison School of Human Ecology and an expert on youth and politics, said “action civics,” in which students complete a project or volunteer for their community, is another way to spark political engagement.

“Making civic life something that kids feel like they have a voice in is the way I would say it really has to happen,” Flanagan said.

Emily Hamer / Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism

Madison West High School student Genevieve Anex, 18, talks with League of Women Voters of Dane County volunteer Shirley Haidinger about how to vote. Anex, who registered for the first time that day, said all of her teachers encouraged her to vote.

At Madison West High School, for example, the League of Women Voters of Dane County held a voter registration drive during the lunch period on March 7. Genevieve Anex, 18, registered for the first time that day.

“Every year, even when I couldn’t vote, I knew when this (registration drive) was happening,” Anex said. “All of our teachers encourage us to vote.”

Students in the school’s Get It Done Club also organized a mayoral forum. Club member Maya Williamson Schaffer, 16, said she hoped the event would create a culture in which students think voting is an obligation.

“A lot of seniors get fired up about the big elections, like the presidential and the governor, but a lot of them don’t know as much about local elections,” Williamson Schaffer said. “So we’re trying to encourage seniors to get informed and participate in all elections because that really does make a difference in Madison.”

Emily Hamer / Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism

Margaret Fuguitt, a volunteer with the League of Women Voters of Dane County, helps Madison West High School student Henry McAlvanah register to vote on March 7, 2019. Six students registered during the lunch period that day.

Hess said civic education does not necessarily need to be mandated by state law, and that schools should start this education on their own.

Nearly 20 years ago, Hess was on a civic education task force with legislators and teachers from Wisconsin. The group recommended the state require a standalone civics course, but the proposal did not pass.

Hess said some thought civics was a low priority or that it could be built into history classes. There also were concerns that the course was an unfunded mandate. She hopes Wisconsin will take another look at the idea.

“The time may be ripe to start that conversation again,” Hess said.

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