Commentary | Education

Lessons—What Produces Voters? Apparently Not Civics Classes

These pieces originally appeared as a weekly column entitled “Lessons” in The New York Times between 1999 and 2003.


What produces voters? Apparently not civics classes

By  Richard Rothstein

Only about half of voting-age Americans went to the polls in November. Can schools do anything to spur future graduates to improve on that sorry performance?

One might assume that students who learn more about their rights will be more inclined to exercise them as adults. So perhaps better history and civics courses would help.

But no research confirms that students who know more about those subjects are more likely to vote. All we can say for sure is that the likelihood of voting among citizens with similar demographic traits (like race and income) increases with the level of schooling completed.

Other evidence suggests that students who participate in extracurricular activities like student government or work on a publication — a school yearbook or a newspaper  — are more likely to vote. It also seems that courses that enlist students for community service programs have a positive effect.

But it would be a mistake to think that even those school programs will do much on their own to improve adult civic responsibility. Factors that lead to greater participation are complex and poorly understood.

Young Americans’ voting behavior is certainly abysmal. In 1996 (the most recent presidential election year for which there are detailed data), only about a third of 21- to 24- year-olds went to the polls, down from about half in 1964.

We can expect greater participation by today’s young adults as they grow older. Regardless of the quality of their schooling, older citizens are more likely to vote, perhaps because maturity makes them more aware of how politics affects their families, communities and jobs. So although in 1964 only about half of young adults voted, their participation improved as they aged: by 1996, over 60 percent of this cohort went to the polls.

Yet they still participated less than comparable older voters, people in their mid-50’s, from earlier years. In 1964, roughly three-fourths of the older group had voted.

It is tempting to expect that if history and civics instruction were better, voting participation would improve.

But consider the 65-to-74 age group that voted in 1996 at more than twice the rate of young adults. The older group’s high rate was apparently achieved despite poor high school preparation. Those who graduated from high school would have done so in the years surrounding 1944. That year The New York Times won a Pulitzer Prize for giving a history test to college freshmen that showed, The Times’s account said, their “striking ignorance of even the most elementary aspects of U.S. history.” These students had taken American history courses in high school, but “a large majority” could not adequately identify Lincoln, Jefferson, Jackson or Theodore Roosevelt. Yet 50 years later, they still turned out to vote.

Political scientists offer a variety of explanations for why voting rates of all age groups have declined. Some blame residential mobility that leaves adults with fewer links to communities. Others perceive a decline in organizations like churches, parent-teacher groups and even bowling leagues, leading to fewer social connections and less interest in the common good. Some say the media have bred cynicism about politicians. Still others, noting that campaign television advertisements have replaced precinct workers, say people were more likely to vote when personally asked to do so. Perhaps some combination of these is at work.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress, given to a nationwide sample of students, has tested civics knowledge only twice, in 1988 and 1998. Although the exams were not strictly comparable, civic awareness of high school seniors seemed mostly unchanged from the first test to the second. So while voting by 18- year-olds fell during that time, the drop can’t be explained by falling academic achievement.

While civic knowledge has not diminished, however, there has been a drop in student participation in extracurricular activities that are likely to enhance voting. From 1972 to 1992, student government participation fell by about 20 percent, and work on a yearbook or a student newspaper by about 7 percent. Perhaps more emphasis on high school academics has come at the expense of those pursuits.

Students engaged in student governing are more likely than other, demographically similar students to vote as adults and become involved in community activities. Further research is needed, but what little evidence we have shows no such positive impact from test scores or passive civic knowledge.

If schools play a role in promoting civic behavior, the history and civics curriculum may not be the only place for reform, or even the best place. Students who get to practice responsible citizenship in their schools may turn out to be those most likely to exercise it later.

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