Some depressing news on civic education (but do read the whole piece)

Only one out of three people in France voted during the last regional elections in June. Of course, the covid-crisis can be a part of the explanation, but still, it’s a democratic deficit. Like so often, when there is a problem in society, people tend to look also at education. So maybe it’s a good idea to teach children about democracy and civic duties, so they will turn up to vote from the moment they are allowed. Sounds like a good plan, but a new study has some depressing news.

Research of the effects of civic courses in education has been around for over five decades. A lot of research happened in the fifties and sixties of the previous century, followed by a much calmer period, but recently, more research has been done. Maybe this could be because the first studies didn’t show that much success? Another reason could be that it is not easy to study.

To examine the consequences of civic education, one should check a couple of years later if indeed the children who were being taught would turn up at the election office. For such a study, one would need a longitudinal design, in which we preferably would compare children who have had such a civic education in school with others who haven’t.

This new study by Aaron Weinschenk and Christopher Dawes (2020) did use longitudinal data of the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health (Add Health). Add Health is a school-based longitudinal study of a nationally representative sample of adolescents in grades 7–12 in the United States in 1994–95.  You may be surprised that such data was used. The data collection was developed to explore the causes of health-related behaviour of adolescents and their outcomes in young adulthood. Still, the dataset also contains different variables, such as measures of voter turnout. These variables then can be combined with a range of other variables that can be used as controls, such as cognitive ability, demographics, and parental attributes. Even better: the children were re-examined in 2008 in the next instalment of the study, making it possible to look at the longitudinal effects. Even better, for 12000 of the participants, the researchers who collected the data also examined what was being taught in school and how. This made it possible to have a general measure of the extent of participants’ exposure to civic education in school and even a series of more nuanced measures that capture the types of civic courses the students followed in high school.

At first, it seemed that civic education did have a positive effect on turnout, but… this changed when the researchers controlled for However, after accounting for individual and family attributes, civic education seems to have a relatively limited effect on turnout, while several measures have statistically significant effects even after accounting for these variables. This means that while there is a significant impact that can be measured, this effect is small in this case, even less than one percentage point, whatever approach of teaching was chosen.

But why is this the case? Therefore the researchers examined the effects of the family by checking 1923 siblings in the 1994-5 wave and 1579 siblings from the 2008 wave. This can be potentially very interesting as maybe two brothers or sisters have shared the same home environment but not have had the same civic education in school. This made things even more depressing, as the results of this subgroup suggest that most civics courses do not have statistically significant effects on turnout in adulthood and that any effects that exist are unlikely to yield large increases in turnout in adulthood. Instead, the impact of family on voter turnout was much more prominent. The researchers conclude:

“…children whose parents are civically involved exhibit a 3.3-percentage-point increase in turnout when they reach adulthood compared to their counterparts. Thus civics courses, even when they work, do not appear to make up for differences in family background.”

Does this mean that we should abolish civic education in school? No, as the researchers see in the literature, other benefits, rather on attitudes than on actual behaviour. This is confirmed by the International Civic and Citizenship Education Study (ICCS), which examines the civic attitudes of children worldwide at age 13-14. The latest round of this study in 2016 (Schulz et al, 2016) showed several positive evolutions in civic attitudes towards, e.g., gender and… talking with parents about politics.


  • Schulz, W., Ainley, J., Fraillon, J., Losito, B., Agrusti, G., & Friedman, T. (2016). Becoming citizens in a changing world. IEA International Civic and Citizenship Education Study.
  • Weinschenk, A. C., & Dawes, C. T. (2020). Civic Education in High School and Voter Turnout in Adulthood. British Journal of Political Science, 1-15.


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