"Fault Lines" study identifies link between lack of civic education and low participation in voting, volunteering

Yet another national study, this one by Educational Testing Service, is giving failing grades to the way schools prepare young people to participate in civic life.

"Fault Lines in Our Democracy," issued Wednesday by the Princeton, N.J.-based nonprofit, diagnoses a "disconnect" between what students are taught about American government and what they retain, and concludes that students need not just more lectures about civics but more opportunities for hands-on participation in civic activities. (ETS administers some of the most common college entrance exams, including the SAT and GRE, as well as the Advanced Placement tests.)

The study gives an especially bleak portrayal of civic participation for those of lower economic status who drop out of school, finding that the likelihood of voting, volunteering or otherwise taking an active role in the life of the community is directly correlated with both age and educational attainment. (People under 24 with a bachelor's degree are seven times more likely to vote than are those who didn't finish high school.)

The entire report is worth reviewing, but several findings jump out as particularly noteworthy:

  • Only 27% of students in fourth grade could identify the main purpose of the U.S. Constitution on a questionnaire.
  • More than 40% of eighth-graders said their schools offered no course focusing primarily on civics or government.
  • Fully 43% of 14-year-olds surveyed were categorized as politically "indifferent" or "disaffected," characterized by the motto: "I have better ways to spend my time than thinking about being active in politics."
The report acknowledges, and echoes, the earlier work of Justice Sandra Day O'Connor's Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools, which in September issued its report, "Guardian of Democracy," that declared a deficit of "civic literacy" among America's youth and recommended more hands-on involvement in government and community life at an earlier age.

(While it's laudable that so much effort is focusing on the betterment of schools, you have to hope that the takeaway is not a round of "look how dumb kids are" head-slapping. Because there is no reason to think that people are becoming significantly more educated about the separation of powers or the workings of the Supreme Court after they leave school. How would they do it? By watching television? Middle-aged people may participate in politics more avidly, but not more knowledgeably.)

"Fault Lines" provides yet more evidence that the disempowering climate in so many public schools is having real consequences on young people's belief in the efficacy of political involvement.

When the Bill of Rights is experienced only as a lecture topic, but disregarded in practice, it is unsurprising that students "tune out" of public life. If political participation by young people is truly of importance to us, then the first indispensable step is to invite them inside the real political process -- not a make-believe class exercise -- and to treat their voices as having value.

Tagged: Civic Engagement