From Social Education.
By: Jill Bass and Brian Brady | Issue: November/December, 2019
Every four years during the presidential election season, the media focuses on the perceived apathy of young people, and many well-intentioned organizations zero in on mobilizing young voters. This strategy leads to a myopic focus on just registering students to vote without adequate attention given towards the larger task of growing voters and civically engaged students.
By focusing primarily on voter mobilization, we play into the myth that youth are apathetic. Our youth engagement staff at Mikva Challenge find that young people are actually more uninvited to the civic process than apathetic. Young people care about many issues, often issues that are local and sometimes hyper-local, residing in their school and immediate neighborhood. Tuft’s Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) recently called on schools and civic education organizations to focus on growing voters instead of mobilizing voters. CIRCLE states that [Y]oung people begin to understand and experience democracy, and what role they are expected to play in it, well before they reach voting age. Before youth reach 18, they can have (or miss out on) experiences and receive implicit or explicit messages that shape whether they believe their voice matters and that change is possible. Another benefit of focusing on grow-ing voters and civic participants is it is inclusive of all of our students—our immigrant students who might not have citizenship and our younger students who want to participate but are not of voting age. So what does it look like to develop voters rather than mobilize them? It is when educators begin with civic discussions and provide a foundation for students to research, speak out, and take informed action locally. It means focusing on local government and issues, which are easier for youth to get involved in and to impact. Growing voters and civic participants is a strategy that focuses on long term and structural efforts to provide all young people with quality civic learning opportunities and focuses on developing their own political voice and agency through real-world civic experiences. For educators and organizers to implement this strategy, they need quality curricula and training in this process, and they need a network of supportive administrators and community organizations to assist their efforts. Our recommendation for schools this election year is to focus on these four core strategies to improve youth civic knowledge and participation:
1. Fostering Student Voice The first step to being an informed, active and engaged citizen(1) is to find your voice—what do you care about and what would you like to improve or safeguard in your community? Traditional school-ing is built on a model of content transfer: the teacher has all the knowledge, which teachers transmit to students. This model reinforces passivity rather than agency and voice. Student participation is in response to teacher prompting rather than at their own initiative. Research has shown that older students are less engaged in school, and we know why. Pre-K students who enter a room full of energy and non-stop curiosity give way to high school students asking, “Will this be on the test?” Developing youth voters requires not just a civics course but a commitment from school and community leaders to invite youth into the civic dialogue and process. Because schools are usually the most important government institutions in young people’s lives, we need to shift our classrooms to be more demo-cratic—allowing space for student voice and choice, leadership and community building. At Mikva Challenge, we work with teachers and administrators to develop these practices and remove barriers (both structural and psychological) to fostering student voice. This is not easy work and can take years, not months, to accomplish. It requires visionary leaders and early adopter teachers to lead the way and show the school community the power of this practice.
2. Understanding Power and Decision Making As Eric Liu notes in his video “How to Understand Power,” the use of the word “power” in the civic context “seems a little dirty, maybe even evil” since in a democracy, power is supposed to reside in the people, and any inquiry further can make people uncomfortable. And yet understanding how power works—who has what power and what powers we, as members of this democracy, have—is an essential component of meaningful civic education. Young people are not naive to power, and they learn from an early age at home and in the community who gets to make decisions about their lives. Young people also sense the use and abuse of power and the ways in which they feel powerless. Avoiding the discussion and analysis of power only yields cynicism and disengagement. We need to be more honest and transparent with our youth. We need to teach about power and decision making, and we need to equip students with “power tools” so they can advocate for themselves and their community. When students discover the importance of their own personal narrative, the influence of purposeful networking, the skill of researching and presenting issues, and the art of advocating for solutions with leaders and peers, they are building their own agency and efficacy. These skills also happen to be the same skills and attitudes needed to succeed in college and the modern workplace. Civics truly is not just civics anymore—it’s 21st Century skill-building. 3. Taking Informed Action Voting is one of the lightest forms of civic engagement. It requires an individual to show up once a year (or every four years for many Americans). Of course we want to develop students into life-long voters. Centering civic education on voting misses out on all the ways that young people can be civically engaged even if they cannot vote. For example, Mikva students have engaged in civic action projects in which they lobbied (and succeeded) in getting comprehensive Sex Education legislation passed; students have tested the water quality at their school and worked to get new lead-free water fountains and water bottle refill stations installed; and students have leveraged the media to gain attention about the poor physical condition of their school and successfully gotten the school on the repairs list. Of course we want to develop our students into lifelong voters. To develop the habit of voting requires a more holistic approach to voting. For example, Mikva Challenge teachers engage students in a wide range of electoral engagement activities. They have students organize and host voter registration drives in the school and in the community. Students organize and host candidate forums for local elections. Students lead voter education and Get Out The Vote drives. Students work as election judges on election day. And students go out and campaign for their candidates—making calls, knocking on doors, and talking to other prospective voters. None of that requires students to be eligible to vote and all of it engages students much more meaningfully than merely showing up and checking a few boxes.
4. Provide Holistic Civic Learning — Theory and Practice amplify one another! Developing lifelong civic habits and dispositions requires a holistic approach to civic learning. Civic education often focuses too heavily on civic knowledge without attending to civic practices. As CIRCLE notes in its report, [Young people] may or may not get practical information about how, where, and when to vote. All of these factors are shaped by the specific community conditions that surround young people: in their town or city, school, neighborhood, etc. The availability and quality of opportunities to develop as a voter and active community member is frequently unequal across these settings.
Mikva Challenge has seen that a longterm impact on voting requires taking enough time to help youth and students develop their voice and understand power and many types of civic action.
The CIRCLE report mirrors Mikva Challenge’s experience over the last 20 years of running hands-on civic engagement programs with students regarding elections, community change programs, and youth policy councils. Mikva Challenge alums register to vote at almost twice the level of their peers and vote at three times the rate. When we interview alumni about this engagement, they cite the totality of their civic work in high school and middle school as what paved the way for voting. For our alums, voting is just one of the many civic activities they engage in. They also volunteer on campaigns at 16 times the rate of their peers, lobby lawmakers at 12 times the rate, and speak out politically on social media and at meetings with frequency.
What is Needed from School Leaders
Civic education is not unique in terms of what it needs to be successful. Teachers need development and support from both their administrators and community experts. They need this in direct connection to their specific classroom needs, school culture, and district mandates. A one-time workshop won’t make it happen. Teachers need ongoing coaching and investment. They need high-quality curriculum to guide them (not direct them) in implementing meaningful civic learning.
Schools need to truly embrace their civic mission in word and in deed. Schools need to create opportunities for student voice and student leadership beyond showcases and tokenistic roles. Students need to practice power in a real way.
School and district leaders need to see civic outcomes tied to other existing metrics such as Social and Emotional Learning Outcomes, Speaking and Listening Standards, and 21st Century Skills. The concept of civics should be broadened to not only include content knowledge on government structures but to include the very skills, habits, and attitudes that make you a positive participant in a community. In this way, all teachers are civics teachers. Because, indeed, students need to communicate, collaborate, and problem solve across disciplines.
In short, civic education and youth civic engagement should not start nor end with voting. Voting is simply part of the many civic actions and expressions of a civically empowered and engaged young person. When we value the whole body of civic voice and work of young people, we will also move youth voting rates higher.
1. Mikva Challenge uses the term “citizen” to denote any person living in the community, not a legal status.
Jill Bass taught in Chicago and New York City public schools for 13 years and has been a curriculum writer, educational consultant, and instructional coach. Jill is the Chief Education Officer at Mikva Challenge where she oversees partner sites, curriculum development, and teacher professional learning. Brian Brady leads the Mikva Challenge with the vision of bringing civic empowerment and political participation to all young people, especially low-income youth of color who are often left out of the democratic process. Coming from a family that was very civically engaged, Brian understood early in life the transformative impacts of learning civics by doing it.