Impact of civics education on voting

Flickr photo by Eric Langhorst

Jennifer Bachner (Harvard Government department PhD student) has a recent paper From Classroom to Voting Booth: The Effect of High School Civic Education on Turnout on the impact of civics education on voting.  Moreover, the paper suggests that civics education may help to level the political playing field since the gains in voting are greatest among those who have not been socialized by their families to vote.  33 States now require such civics classes (American Government/Civics) and many more school districts offer such classes.   Almost 80% of US high school graduates have taken a minimum of 0.5 credits in such classes, up from 62% in 1982.

Her research uses the NELS data (National Educational Longitudinal Surveys) of 1998 and 2002 and tracks voting in the national 1992-2006 elections.  She controls for baseline interest in politics and involvement in extra-curriculars, parents’ level of political socialization of their child (discussion of politics and whether they subscribe to a newpaper), the quality of the school in which the child attends, and the child’s race and gender, and parents’ native language and level of education.

Abstract follows:

A healthy democracy requires a citizenry that participates in political life. While interventions such as removing barriers to registration and mobilizing partisans have received frequent scholarly attention, formal civic education has been largely ignored.  Using longitudinal data and a matching analysis, this paper shows that students who complete a year of coursework in American Government/Civics are 3-6 percentage points more likely to vote in an election following high school than those without exposure to civic education.  Further, this effect is magnified among students whose parents are not highly politicized.  Among students who report not discussing politics with their parents, additional coursework is associated with a 7-11 percentage point increase in the probability of voting.  This result suggests that civic education compensates for a relative lack of political socialization at home, and thereby enhances participatory equality.

Note: She finds consistent results, regardless of whether she uses matched or unmatched data;  she uses matching to ensure that those who get the civics classes and those who don’t look as similar as possible to each other on their propensity to get involved politically.

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2 responses to “Impact of civics education on voting

  1. Have you looked at voting patterns among those who took civics classes and went on to college and those who did not go on to college as one way to measure those who paid attention in civics and those who did not? Also what is the impact of studying basic economics in high school and voting? Have you looked at the impact of American history education and voting? It might be interesting to compare scores on the AP American History exam and voting. Every time I see results that show a lack of understanding of history, economics, and how government works I think that there is something wrong with the schools. Why else would working class voters buy into supply side economics or the TEA party?

  2. It seems like civic education gets people to vote more, and to agree more with the current pro-democracy zeitgeist, but it does not necessarily make them vote more wisely. Is it really a good idea to encourage greater political participation amongst the uninformed, and to use public education to encourage popular adherence to our zeitgeist’s ruling ideology?

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