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High School Civic Education Linked to Voting Participation and Political Knowledge, No Effect on Partisanship or Candidate Selection

Most Young Voters Knew the Candidates’ Issue Positions

MEDFORD/SOMERVILLE, MA – A large, national survey of young Americans released today shows that most young adults who voted in 2012 could choose an issue that was important to them and knew where the candidates stood on at least one (of two) relevant policies. Young Obama and Romney voters had strikingly similar levels of political knowledge. But the survey reveals widespread misinformation on some issues, and young people who did not vote scored poorly on the knowledge questions.

The survey, released today by the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE), also shows a clear relationship between respondents’ high school civics education experiences and their knowledge of campaign issues and political participation in the 2012 presidential election. However, taking high school civics had little or no relationship with party registration or young adults’ choice between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney.

CIRCLE, the nation’s premiere research center on youth civic engagement, is based at the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service at Tufts University. CIRCLE’s poll of 4,483 young Americans, ages 18-24, was conducted from the day after the election until December 21. As part of the poll, respondents were asked to choose one issue of particular interest to them. They were then asked to express their own opinion on this issue and to answer two factual questions about where President Obama and Governor Romney stood.

Major findings:

  • On some topics, young people were informed. More than three in four young voters could correctly answer at least one factual question about the candidates’ position on a campaign issue that they had chosen as important. And on questions about the structure of the US government, they performed as well or better than older adults who have been asked similar questions in other polls.
  • On other topics, most young people were misinformed. For instance, a majority (51.2%) believed that the federal government spends more on foreign aid than on Social Security, when in fact Social Security costs about 20 times more. But again, older adults have also been found to be widely misinformed on the same topics.
  • About one quarter of young voters were poorly informed about the campaign’s issues, and young people who did not vote were generally uninformed.
  • Young people who recalled high-quality civic education experiences in school were more likely to vote, to form political opinions, to know campaign issues, and to know general facts about the US political system. That does not mean that civics causes higher turnout and more knowledge, because students who experience better civics may also have other advantages in their schools and communities. But the correlations are very strong and at least demonstrate that active and informed citizens tend to be people who had good civic education.

More analysis and specific results are available in a fact sheet released today.

“Young people who recalled experiencing more high-quality civic education practices in schools were more likely to vote, to form political opinions, to know campaign issues, and to know general facts about the US political system,” said Peter Levine, director of CIRCLE. “Civics education was not related to partisanship or choice of candidate. These results should allay political concerns about civic education being taught in schools.”

The CIRCLE poll provides the most current and extensive data on young people’s knowledge relevant to voting and elections. Only 24% of 12th graders scored at the “proficient” level on the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) in civics, which is a federal study and the most prominently cited statistic on civic education. But, as CIRCLE explains in a companion fact sheet also released today, the NAEP Civics assessment only measures certain kinds of knowledge, and its definition of “proficient” is open to debate.

The survey released today found that 87.8% of respondents recalled taking some kind of civics course in high school.  Of those who took some kind of civics course, almost all (96.9%) learned at least some information about voting. Of those who recalled studying voting during high school, 60.2% turned out to vote in 2012–as opposed to only 43% of those who recalled no civic education course.  The more that respondents’ teachers had taught them about voting, the more likely they were to vote in 2012.

The survey not only captured the respondents’ recollections of whether they had taken a course in civics education, but also the quality of their educational experiences in civics. High-quality experiences included projects in the community or teachers’ encouraging discussion of current events, among others. A little over one quarter of respondents said they had not taken civics at all or recalled a maximum of one high-quality experience. Another 31.5% remembered two or three high-quality experiences. The remaining 43.5% could remember four or five relevant civics experience. That last group had much more knowledge and was much more likely to vote last November.

Next week, further results from the survey–including what young Americans thought were the top issues priorities lawmakers in Washington should focus on for the next four years, along with the poll’s full toplines–will be released.

Today’s survey released by CIRCLE was funded by the Spencer Foundation. The companion fact sheet released today was funded by the S.D. Bechtel, Jr., Foundation. Both foundations, along with the W.T. Grant Foundation and the Chicago Community Trust, are supporting CIRCLE’s recently announced Commission on Youth Voting and Civic Knowledge, which will consider the data released today as well as other research on the 2012 election in developing its recommendations for how to enhance young people’s informed voting.

Additional information is in this fact sheet: CIRCLE staff, “What do Young Adults Know about Politics? Evidence from a National Survey Conducted After the 2012 Election” (Medford, MA: Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, 2013).

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CIRCLE (www.civicyouth.org) is a nonpartisan, independent, academic research center that studies young people in politics and presents detailed data on young voters in all 50 states. CIRCLE was founded in 2001 with a generous gift from the Pew Charitable Trusts and is part of the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service at Tufts University. CIRCLE’s reputation for reliable, independent, timely research has been hailed by experts in the field of civic partnership, such as Harvard University professor Robert Putnam who said CIRCLE has brought “the best and most serious research to one place.”

The Jonathan M. Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service (http://activecitizen.tufts.edu/) is a national leader whose model and research are setting the standard for higher education’s role in civic engagement education. Serving every school of Tufts University, Tisch College creates an enduring culture that prepares students to be lifelong active citizens.

Tufts University (http://www.tufts.edu/) located on three Massachusetts campuses in Boston, Medford/Somerville and Grafton, and in Talloires, France, is recognized as one of the premier research universities in the United States. Tufts enjoys a global reputation for academic excellence and for the preparation of students as leaders in a wide range of professions. A growing number of innovative teaching and research initiatives span all Tufts campuses, and collaboration among the faculty and students in the undergraduate, graduate, and professional programs across the university’s schools is widely encouraged.

2 Responses to “High School Civic Education Linked to Voting Participation and Political Knowledge, No Effect on Partisanship or Candidate Selection”

  1. what did young voters know and understand in 2012? « Peter Levine Says:

    [...] to answer two factual questions about where President Obama and Governor Romney stood on the issue. Detailed information is here, but these are some major [...]

  2. the most important thing citizens should know « Peter Levine Says:

    [...] NPP is helping with public education, but the problem is serious. Right after the election, we asked almost 4,500 young adults, “Does the government spend more on Social Security or foreign [...]

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