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The time is ripe for a nationwide focus on teaching America’s youth effective political engagement

In recent weeks students on college campuses from Missouri to New Haven have taken matters into their own hands, showing their desire to create change and improve the injustices they feel are inherent throughout our society.

These youth-driven movements offer the potential to drive the national conversation on the importance of educating for democratic participation. The role of cultivating effective political citizenship cannot be at the fringes of our educational system — it must be front and center.

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A recent de-focus on standardized testing, coupled with an increasingly broken electoral system, also demonstrates the urgent need to educate young people on the importance of political engagement.

The role of cultivating effective political citizenship cannot be at the fringes of our educational system — it must be front and center.

After years of resistance from educators and activists, the U.S. Department of Education acknowledged that standardized tests, and the high-stakes that accompany their implementation, have occupied a disproportionately large space in our classrooms, taking time away from other critical education subjects.

And turnout was abysmal on Election Day this year, despite the fact that municipalities and states voted on referenda and statewide officials. In Texas, even with the presence of several constitutional amendments, 11 percent of voters participated. With state legislature seats topping the ballot in New Jersey, a turnout of 21 percent marked the lowest in the state’s history. These low turnouts are not an aberration, but rather, further evidence that the American public is losing both patience and interest with a politics that seemingly becomes less substantive by the day.

All of these events — university protests, the de-prioritization of testing, and the breaking political system — prove that we must bring civics education back.

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Rather than solely teaching young people to succeed on standardized tests, we need to impart the knowledge and skills that allow them to become informed and active citizens who can positive changes for both their own lives and the collective good. This type of democracy education holds the potential to break the cycle of political disengagement.

The recent prevalence of university activism on issues from racism to sexual assault, and the burgeoning #BlackLivesMatter movement, have disproved the notion that this generation of young people is apathetic towards social issues. Young people do want to make a difference in these increasingly tumultuous times (according to a recent poll conducted by the Intelligence Group, 64 percent of Millennials say making the world the better place is a priority). But despite this decidedly idealistic spirit, they do not see institutional politics, and interacting with government, as the way to create this change.

A USA Today/Bipartisan Policy Center poll found that Millennials overwhelmingly felt that volunteering and charity was a better way of making positive change in society than by engaging with government. Only 20 percent trust the federal government to do what is right most of the time. In contrast, a 1973 Pew study found that the majority of young people trusted government to do the right thing. And despite an uptick of youth turnout during the Obama elections of 2008 and 2012, only 20 percent of 18-29 year olds voted in the 2014 midterm election, the lowest youth turnout vote ever recorded by the U.S. Census. Unfortunately, this behavior leads to a vicious cycle — young people are not participating in politics, and elected officials do not pay attention to issues affecting young people.

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The challenge with these skeptical youth political attitudes is that, despite the dysfunction of government, politics still matter. No apps or social media engagement, or even protests, will solve the pressing issues facing the country today like inequality, immigration and education inequity. We need local and federal politicians to take decisive action, and we need citizens to force their feet to the fire. And this starts with our young people.

One of the crucial reasons that young people are not politically engaged is that schools are not teaching them the values or skills to be politically engaged. A recent National Assessment of Educational Progress test demonstrated that only 23 percent of eighth graders were proficient in civics. The recent focus on STEM education and focus on standardized testing of core subjects has largely pushed the discipline of civics out of the classroom.

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Despite all of these challenges, the confluence of the de-prioritization of testing and the widespread acknowledgment that our political process is not working provides an opening for a serious conversation about the role of democracy education. Until now, it has occupied a fringe role, with the federal government allocating zero dollars towards its implementation, and districts and states not containing adequate assessments or trainings to ensure its proper teaching.

Despite education officials not focusing on the subject, there are pockets of effective democracy education occurring. In Chicago, the Mikva Challenge teaches more than 2,000 students “action civics” annually, in which students create projects that address local issues. Californians for Justice organizes young people to systematically address issues of injustice, which recently included incorporating student voice in the state’s new funding formula deliberations. These efforts promote skills-building and academic engagement in young people, improve public institutions, and ultimately, help create a more equitable country in which a more comprehensive body of voices is represented in decision-making.

To this end, Generation Citizen has just released the white paper “Educating for Democracy,” with support from the Ford Foundation and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation (Hewlett is a funder of The Hechinger Report). The paper first aims to examine the rationale for expanding the field and serving as a urgent call to action — through arguing for a more comprehensive framework for the field of democracy education (including in-school civics education and out-of-school youth organizing), and explicitly linking democracy education and the pressing issues of the day, like inequality. Crucially, the paper argues that democracy education must be firmly established as a discipline that young people in this country must receive as part of their individual development, and for the broader long-term success of this country.

All too often, civics education is seen as a fringe discipline. If we teach our young people reading, writing, math, arts, science, and three languages, then maybe we can think about civics. But as we rethink our country’s educational priorities, and listen to the emerging passion for justice that our young people are exhibiting throughout the country, we have an opportunity to promote civics as a subject that every single young person in this country should receive. Educating young people to participate in politics cannot be seen as a luxury. It should be seen as vital for the very future of our democracy.

Scott Warren is executive director of Generation Citizen, a national non-profit dedicated to teaching young people to be active citizens.

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