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CIRCLE Survey Links High School Civic Education to Voting Participation and Political Knowledge

Monday, February 4, 2013

Tisch College's experts on youth voting and engagement published a comprehensive new analysis.


A large national survey of young Americans recently released by CIRCLE shows young Obama and Romney voters had strikingly similar levels of political knowledge. The survey 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 young adults’ choice between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney.

“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.”

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 the fact sheet, What do Young Adults Know about Politics? Evidence from a National Survey Conducted After the 2012 Election.

The survey, funded by the Spencer Foundation, 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.

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 funded by the S.D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation, the NAEP Civics assessment only measures certain kinds of knowledge, and its definition of “proficient” is open to debate.

The Spencer Foundation, S.D. Bechtel, Jr., Foundation, 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 in this survey as well as other research on the 2012 election in developing its recommendations for how to enhance young people’s informed voting.


Tisch College’s CIRCLE (The Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning & Engagement) is the leading source of authoritative research on civic and political engagement of young Americans.