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Can K-12 Teachers Increase Students’ Proclivity to Vote Once They Come of Age?

Michael Nutter

February 20, 2019

Schools may be able to teach students to be more resilient — and thus more engaged in our democracy.

Despite a recent push for increased civic engagement, voter turnout rates in the U.S. consistently fall below 50 percent — but exciting new research suggests it’s possible that schools have the power to change that. A recent study conducted by Christina Gibson-Davis and D. Sunshine Hillygus of Duke University and John Holbein of Brigham Young University (BYU) indicates that instilling young Americans with “grit” may be the secret to supercharging voter turnout.

First popularized by social scientist Angela Duckworth, grit is often described as a mix of skills and attitudes — including self-efficacy, the ability to plan around setbacks, and a willingness to work hard — that help people achieve individual success. Based on a survey of tens of thousands of North Carolina high school and middle school students, the Duke/BYU study found that teens who exhibit this mix of skills and attitudes tend to be more involved in their schools and communities and more likely to say they intend to vote once they turn 18.

While mass surveys are generally considered a somewhat imperfect means of drawing definitive conclusions, these findings offer an intriguing window into student behavior — and what schools can do to increase young people’s civic engagement.

Civic Engagement Starts in Adolescence

To assess students’ grit, the survey asked whether participants agreed or disagreed with a variety of statements describing their work ethic, including “I am a hard worker,” “Setbacks don’t discourage me,” and “I finish whatever I begin.” Participants were then asked whether they were involved in school activities, enjoyed talking with teachers and classmates, and believed their learning was important to the achievement of their future goals.

In virtually every measure of civic and school engagement, the highest-ranking students were also the grittiest. Administrative data backed this up, as these students were less likely to accrue unexcused absences and tardies. Beyond the classroom walls, these students were more likely to say they volunteered in their community, believed in their political efficacy, and intended to vote as soon as they were able. In other words, the study revealed a positive correlation between grit and proactive civic participation.

While most studies on political socialization focus on adulthood, this study indicates that civic engagement programs might be more effective were they directed at students who are just beginning to learn about democratic institutions from their teachers and classmates.

Previous research has even shown that participation in student clubs and sports teams is predictive of future political involvement. Considering that civic engagement is related to — or perhaps even produced by — grit and that experts believe schools can actually begin teaching grit and resilience to students at a very young age, it’s increasingly clear that schools have a major role to play in the development of an involved American populace.

How Teachers Shape Informed Citizens

An article published in The Atlantic in 2016 explored a study of teacher effectiveness that showed that while some teachers were reliably able to raise their students’ test scores year after year, others were able to raise their students’ performance on noncognitive measures like school attendance and discipline. These two groups didn’t have much overlap: most teachers were either skilled at raising test scores or skilled at improving noncognitive skills (or “academic perseverance”).

The study also found that teachers are actually able develop the skill-sets they need to foster academic perseverance among their students. That said, traditionally, schools have only rewarded teachers whose students consistently receive higher standardized test scores, even though the latter group of teachers arguably makes a greater impact on students’ overall outcomes.

In light of everything outlined above, it’s clear that schools need to rethink their approaches to both professional development and teacher evaluation. Of course, doing so will require access to more — and more reliable — streams of funding, access schools can only secure if their EMIS reporting is accurate and up-to-date.

That’s why it’s vital for schools team up with an experienced EMIS reporting partner like Vinson. By implementing a tool like Vinson’s CheckPoint EMIS Platform, schools can stop relying on cluttered, outdated spreadsheets and streamline all of their reporting processes, ensuring they receive all the funding they need to prepare the next generation of conscientious citizens for civic life.

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