One out of every 4 or 5. That’s how many students will display a significant mental health problem over the course of their lifetime.
Such students can be identified early with considerable accuracy if educators are given the right training and tools. Unfortunately, most schools rely on reactive methods, like office discipline referrals, to figure out which students need behavioral and mental health services.
Research shows this approach of waiting until students act out in school is inefficient and leads to as many as 80 percent of those with mental health needs to fall through the cracks.
Such concerns have heightened in the wake of the Parkland high school massacre. News reports indicate the alleged shooter exhibited a number of troubling behaviors, raising questions about his mental health status and whether more could have been done to help him sooner.
To address the issue of students falling through the cracks, more schools should adopt proactive, universal screening tools.
Universal screening typically occurs three times throughout the school year: fall, winter and spring. Screeners are brief assessments that take no more than a few minutes to complete. They include approximately 20 questions and are given to each student in the elementary classroom. These tools ask students to indicate things such as “I lose my temper” or whether they are “adaptable to change.” The questions are purposefully broad and are meant to identify students who may be at risk for either internal problem behaviors, such as anxiety or depression, or external problem behaviors, such as aggression toward others. The screenings are scored and used to prioritize which students need intervention.
Screeners are typically administered without parental consent if they are embedded into the general school curriculum.
Research shows that screening tools can help educators identify students with mental health needs with far greater accuracy and speed, rather than waiting for a severe problem behavior, such as a school fight.
I developed one such tool – the Social, Academic and Emotional Behavior Risk Screener, or SAEBRS – with the help of several grants, including $1.4 million from the Institute for Educational Sciences in the U.S. Department of Education.
If society is serious about preventing severe mental and behavioral health problems, it must take a critical look at the current state of mental health supports in the nation’s schools. Doing so will bring the value of screening tools into sharper focus.
School mental health stretched thin
First, let’s consider the service provider side of the equation. The National Association of School Psychologists recommends a ratio of 1 school psychologist for every 500-700 students. However, the reality is that states on average have ratios of nearly twice that amount. Simply put, schools rarely have the staff necessary for comprehensive mental health services.
Second, only a small number of students who need mental health services will receive intervention in a timely manner. Due to the amount of time that teachers spend with students, teachers are the critical link to identify which students need help and to refer students to school psychologists, counselors and social workers. The question is: Do teachers know what to look for?
Silent issues overlooked
Consider a typical elementary classroom with 30 students. Approximately 6 students, on average, will have a critical mental and behavioral health problem such as anxiety or aggression, yet less than half will receive timely intervention. Who are those students? Typically those that exhibit more outward types of problems, such as aggression, problems paying attention and disruptive behavior.
Students with harder-to-see issues, such as withdrawal, anxiety and social isolation often get overlooked and rarely receive essential services. Teachers often lack the training or tools necessary to know which students may need help, beyond those that are disruptive to instruction.
These screenings are not part of the process for comprehensive special education evaluations, so the concerns about schools having to offer special education services as a result of the screening do not come into play.
While screening tools can help identify troubled students sooner, it is important not to oversell the usefulness of these tools. To be clear, there are no research-validated tools that can reliably identify which students may commit violent acts.
Toward universal screening
Currently, less than 15 percent of schools engage in some form of behavioral or mental health screening. However, more schools are adopting universal screening.
As the developer of a screening tool, I have seen rapid adoption of the tool over the last four years from two elementary schools in rural North Carolina to hundreds of schools across 28 states. As schools consider how best to meet the behavioral and mental health needs of their students, screening can provide crucial information to guide the way.
Numbers do not exist in all cultures. There are numberless hunter-gatherers embedded deep in Amazonia, living along branches of the world’s largest river tree. Instead of using words for precise quantities, these people rely exclusively on terms analogous to “a few” or “some.”
In contrast, our own lives are governed by numbers. As you read this, you are likely aware of what time it is, how old you are, your checking account balance, your weight and so on. The exact (and exacting) numbers we think with impact everything from our schedules to our self-esteem.
But, in a historical sense, numerically fixated people like us are the unusual ones. For the bulk of our species’ approximately 200,000-year lifespan, we had no means of precisely representing quantities. What’s more, the 7,000 or so languages that exist today vary dramatically in how they utilize numbers.
Speakers of anumeric, or numberless, languages offer a window into how the invention of numbers reshaped the human experience. In a new book, I explore the ways in which humans invented numbers, and how numbers subsequently played a critical role in other milestones, from the advent of agriculture to the genesis of writing.
Cultures without numbers, or with only one or two precise numbers, include the Munduruku and Pirahã in Amazonia. Researchers have also studied some adults in Nicaragua who were never taught number words.
Without numbers, healthy human adults struggle to precisely differentiate and recall quantities as low as four. In one experiment, a researcher will place nuts into a can one at a time, then remove them one by one. The person watching is asked to signal when all the nuts have been removed. Responses suggest that anumeric people have some trouble keeping track of how many nuts remain in the can, even if only there are only four or five in total.
This and many other experiments have converged upon a simple conclusion: When people do not have number words, they struggle to make quantitative distinctions that probably seem natural to someone like you or me. While only a small portion of the world’s languages are anumeric or nearly anumeric, they demonstrate that number words are not a human universal.
It is worth stressing that these anumeric people are cognitively normal, well-adapted to the environs they have dominated for centuries. As the child of missionaries, I spent some of my youth living with anumeric indigenous people, the aforementioned Pirahã who live along the sinuous banks of the black Maici River. Like other outsiders, I was continually impressed by their superior understanding of the riverine ecology we shared.
Yet numberless people struggle with tasks that require precise discrimination between quantities. Perhaps this should be unsurprising. After all, without counting, how can someone tell whether there are, say, seven or eight coconuts in a tree? Such seemingly straightforward distinctions become blurry through numberless eyes.
Children and animals
This conclusion is echoed by work with anumeric children in industrialized societies.
Prior to being spoon-fed number words, children can only approximately discriminate quantities beyond three. We must be handed the cognitive tools of numbers before we can consistently and easily recognize higher quantities.
In fact, acquiring the exact meaning of number words is a painstaking process that takes children years. Initially, kids learn numbers much like they learn letters. They recognize that numbers are organized sequentially, but have little awareness of what each individual number means. With time, they start to understand that a given number represents a quantity greater by one than the preceding number. This “successor principle” is part of the foundation of our numerical cognition, but requires extensive practice to understand.
None of us, then, is really a “numbers person.” We are not predisposed to handle quantitative distinctions adroitly. In the absence of the cultural traditions that infuse our lives with numbers from infancy, we would all struggle with even basic quantitative distinctions.
Number words and written numerals transform our quantitative reasoning as they are coaxed into our cognitive experience by our parents, peers and school teachers. The process seems so normal that we sometimes think of it as a natural part of growing up, but it is not. Human brains come equipped with certain quantitative instincts that are refined with age, but these instincts are very limited. For instance, even at birth we are capable of distinguishing between two markedly different quantities – for instance, eight from 16 things.
But we are not the only species capable of such abstractions. Compared to chimps and other primates, our numerical instincts are not as remarkable as many presume. We even share some basic instinctual quantitative reasoning with distant nonmammalian relatives like birds. Indeed, work with some other species, including parrots, suggests they too can refine their quantitative thought if they are introduced to the cognitive power tools we call numbers.
The birth of numbers
So, how did we ever invent “unnatural” numbers in the first place?
The answer is, literally, at your fingertips. The bulk of the world’s languages use base-10, base-20 or base-5 number systems. That is, these smaller numbers are the basis of larger numbers. English is a base-10 or decimal language, as evidenced by words like 14 (“four” + “10”) and 31 (“three” x “10” + “one”).
We speak a decimal language because an ancestral tongue, proto-Indo-European, was decimally based. Proto-Indo-European was decimally oriented because, as in so many cultures, our linguistic ancestors’ hands served as the gateway to realizations like “five fingers on this hand is the same as five fingers on that hand.” Such transient thoughts were manifested into words and passed down across generations. This is why the word “five” in many languages is derived from the word for “hand.”
Most number systems, then, are the by-product of two key factors: the human capacity for language and our propensity for focusing on our hands and fingers. This manual fixation – an indirect by-product of walking upright on two legs – has helped yield numbers in most cultures, but not all.
Cultures without numbers also offer insight into the cognitive influence of particular numeric traditions. Consider what time it is. Your day is ruled by minutes and seconds, but these entities are not real in any physical sense and are nonexistent to numberless people. Minutes and seconds are the verbal and written vestiges of an uncommon base-60 number system used in Mesopotamia millennia ago. They reside in our minds, numerical artifacts that not all humans inherit conceptually.
Research on the language of numbers shows, more and more, that one of our species’ key characteristics is tremendous linguistic and cognitive diversity. While there are undoubtedly cognitive commonalities across all human populations, our radically varied cultures foster profoundly different cognitive experiences. If we are to truly understand how much our cognitive lives differ cross-culturally, we must continually sound the depths of our species’ linguistic diversity.
Being a kindergartner today is very different from being a kindergartner 20 years ago. In fact it is more like first grade.
Researchers have demonstrated that five-year-olds are spending more time engaged in teacher-led academic learning activities than play-based learning opportunities that facilitate child-initiated investigations and foster social development among peers.
As a former kindergarten teacher, a father of three girls who’ve recently gone through kindergarten, and as researcher and teacher-educator in early childhood education, I have had kindergarten as a part of my adult life for almost 20 years.
As a parent, I have seen how student-led projects, sensory tables (that include sand or water) and dramatic play areas have been replaced with teacher-led instructional time, writing centers and sight words lists that children need to memorize. And as a researcher, I found, along with my colleague Yi Chin Lan, that early childhood teachers expect children to have academic knowledge, social skills and the ability to control themselves when they enter kindergarten.
So, why does this matter?
All work, and almost no play
First, let’s look at what kindergarten looks like today.
As part of my ongoing research, I have been conducting interviews with a range of kindergarten stakeholders – children, teachers, parents – about what they think kindergarten is and what it should be. During the interviews, I share a 23-minute film that I made last spring about a typical day in a public school kindergarten classroom.
The classroom I filmed had 22 kindergartners and one teacher. They were together for almost the entire school day. During that time, they engaged in about 15 different academic activities, which included decoding word drills, practicing sight words, reading to themselves and then to a buddy, counting up to 100 by 1’s, 5’s and 10’s, practicing simple addition, counting money, completing science activities about living things and writing in journals on multiple occasions. Recess did not occur until last hour of the day, and that too for about 15 minutes.
For children between the ages of five and six, this is tremendous amount of work. Teachers too are under pressure to cover the material.
When I asked the teacher, who I interviewed for the short film, why she covered so much material in a few hours, she stated,
There’s pressure on me and the kids to perform at a higher level academically.
So even though the teacher admitted that the workload on kindergartners was an awful lot, she also said she was unable to do anything about changing it.
She was required to assess her students continuously, not only for her own instruction, but also for multiple assessments such as quarterly report cards, school-based reading assessments, district-based literacy and math assessments, as well as state-mandated literacy assessments.
In turn, when I asked the kindergartners what they were learning, their replies reflected two things: one, they were learning to follow rules; two, learning was for the sake of getting to the next grade and eventually to find a job. Almost all of them said to me that they wanted more time to play. One boy said:
Giving children a chance to play and engage in hands-on learning activities helps them internalize new information as well as compare and contrast what they’re learning with what they already know. It also provides them with the chance to interact with their peers in a more natural setting and to solve problems on their own. Lastly, it allows kindergartners to make sense of their emotional experiences in and out of school.
So children asking for more time to play are not trying to get out of work. They know they have to work in school. Rather, they’re asking for a chance to recharge as well as be themselves.
As another kindergarten boy in my study told me,
We learn about stuff we need to learn, because if we don’t learn stuff, then we don’t know anything.
Learning by exploring
So what can we do to help kindergartners?
I am not advocating for the elimination of academics in kindergarten. All of the stakeholders I’ve talked with up to this point, even the children, know and recognize that kindergartners need to learn academic skills so that they can succeed in school.
However, it is the free exploration that is missing. As a kindergarten teacher I filmed noted:
Free and exploratory learning has been replaced with sit, focus, learn, get it done and maybe you can have time to play later.
Policymakers, schools systems and schools need to recognize that the standards and tests they mandate have altered the kindergarten classroom in significant ways. Families need to be more proactive as well. They can help their children’s teachers by being their advocates for a more balanced approach to instruction.
Kindergartners deserve learning experiences in school that nurtures their development as well as their desire to learn and interact with others. Doing so will assist them in seeing school as a place that will help them and their friends be better people.
Donald Trump’s nominee for secretary of education, Michigan billionaire Betsy DeVos, was questioned on a range of education issues during her confirmation hearing this week. Central to the debate is her major role in supporting school choice policies in her home state.
Her views on this issue are consistent with Trump’s, who during his campaign promised US$20 billion in federal funding for school choice. During the Republican National Convention, Donald Trump Jr. laid out a critique of the U.S. public education system:
“You know why other countries do better on K through 12? They let parents choose where to send their own children to school.”
We turn to The Conversation’s archives to find out what the research says about school choice. And, who is Betsy Devos, anyway?
A billionaire and advocate
Betsy DeVos has never held public office, and neither she nor her children have ever attended a public school. This is unprecedented in the 35-year history of the position of secretary of education.
Her nomination has stirred up questions about her billionaire background and qualifications to serve.
“Stanford University released a study that claims that charter schools in Detroit have a slight edge over public schools. Conversely, a more recent study from New York City’s Independent Budget Office questions whether choice programs actually benefit lower income students.”
When answers depend on the question asked
“School choice” describes policies that allow families to enroll their children in schools other than the ones assigned to them by the public system.
In certain cases, parents may receive state funding – known as school vouchers – to send their children to schools of their choice.
Views on school voucher programs vary widely. As Cornell University’s Glenn Altschulerexplains,
there have been school voucher programs since the 19th century, but it is in the past 20 years that the movement has gained steam.
The question is, do school vouchers improve student outcomes?
“What we know about school vouchers depends on what we ask. And what we ask should be informed not only by traditional academic outcomes, such as test scores, but also by a new understanding of the many different ways that schools can contribute to student success.”
Are charters good or bad?
Charter schools offer another way of providing options to parents. These public schools are more autonomous than traditional schools. They are often organized around an educational mission or philosophy.
But, as Cowen writes, not all charter schools are created equally:
“Charters’ governance structure – who can operate a charter and what kind of oversight they face – varies by state. For example, while charter schools in some states are managed by nonprofit organizations, in other states they are run for a fee by for-profit companies.”
Success rates vary. As Cowen points out in a second article:
“One recent study of schools in 27 states containing 95 percent of the nation’s charter students found charter advantages overall, but not necessarily in every state. … Such differences are at least partly due to differences in state laws defining what constitutes a charter school.”
Among concerns about charter schools is trend that has recently emerged – cyber charter schools. David Baker and Bryan Mann of Pennsylvania State University sift through the data on this new hybrid between online learning and the charter school model. The outlook isn’t very good.
“Researchers found these trends across almost all states that they studied: They found lower learning growth in reading in 14 out of the 17 states, and 17 out of 17 states in math.”
As to Donald Trump Jr.‘s call to look to other countries, Harvard’s Pasi Sahlberg gives us an insider’s look at classrooms in the country that is deemed to have the best school results in the world: Finland.
“In my previous job as director general at the Finnish Ministry of Education in Helsinki, I had an opportunity to host scores of education delegations from the United States. … A common takeaway was that Finnish teachers seem to have much more professional autonomy than teachers in the United States to help students to learn and feel well.”
“Imagine a police officer pulls you over and tickets you for speeding. She tells you she measured you going 50.5 MPH in a 50 MPH zone. No, you reply, my speedometer shows that I was going exactly 49.5. The entire discussion would be absurd, since neither your speedometer nor the officer’s radar gun is sufficiently accurate to support the opposing claims, and a 0.5 MPH difference is not practically meaningful.”
After President-elect Donald Trump tapped Betsy DeVos to become the head of the United States Department of Education, her name has spurred a great deal of conversation within the K-12 education community.
School Choice is a controversial movement that advocates for parents to “choose” the school (public, private, religious, charter, home, online) they feel is best for their children. Tuition is paid for by redistributing funds from government public schools, or from vouchers that come from a government entity. School choice proponents believe this market-based approach spurs competition, causing all schools to improve.
Trump made his support of school choice clear during his election campaign – Trump’s campaign promised to earmark US$20 billion to the federal education budget to provide “choice” for students nationwide.
As a researcher of education policy and politics, related to e-schools and brick and mortar charter schools, I’ve been following the dialogue within the political and educational community and the concerns over what her tenure as secretary of education will mean for school choice and public schools.
Who exactly is Betsy DeVos and what can we learn from her past actions?
Betsy DeVos’ most recent job was running the American Federation for Children, an advocacy organization. The group’s self-described mission is “promoting school choice, with a specific focus on advocating for school vouchers, scholarship tax credit programs and Education Savings Accounts.”
Prior to running the American Federation for Children, DeVos was the chairwoman of the Republican Party of Michigan and served in other leadership roles in the Republican Party.
DeVos currently sits on the board of directors for the Alliance for School Choice – a special interest organization that marshals donations toward legislative action in favor of school vouchers.
DeVos is married to the heir to the Amway fortune and together both are billionaires. Neither DeVos nor her children ever attended a public school, which is unprecedented in the 35-year existence of the role of education secretary. Every education secretary to date either went to public school or had children that attended public schools.
Michigan agenda and beyond
While in Michigan, DeVos and her husband worked to advance the choice and voucher agenda substantially. Together, they started the Great Lakes Education Project (GLEP) which has worked to provide funding and private training to state legislators to advocate for the redirection of public funds from traditional public schools to other options, including charter schools, private schools, parochial schools (private schools with a religious affiliation) and online schools. Several of these types of schools are run by education management organizations that earn profit from managing publicly funded schools.
GLEP actively endorses candidates that subscribe to the school choice agenda. Since Trump named DeVos his pick for education secretary, GLEP’s current head, Gary Naeyaert, has posted several articles on GLEP’s website praising the work of DeVos.
Accountability is based on a system of standardized tests that measure specific pieces of information. Proponents of choice and vouchers seem to look to these tests as the evidence that show whether or not students are learning.
How education policies might be influenced based on these past actions is hard to know. One early indication could be Trump’s budget proposal to the Congress by Feb. 6. The education portion of his budget will reveal the intentions of the coming policies of the DeVos era and subsequent potential for “school choice.”
87 percent of scientists accept that natural selection plays a role in evolution, 32 percent of the public agree; 88 percent of scientists think that genetically modified foods are safe to eat, 37 percent of the public agree; 87 percent of scientists think that climate change is mostly due to human activity, only 50 percent of the public agree.
This is a cause for concern. In our increasingly technological world, issues like nanotechnology, stem cell research, nuclear power, climate change, vaccines and autism, genetically modified organisms, gun control, health care and endocrine disruption require thoughtful and informed debate. But instead, these and other issues have often been caught up in the so-called culture wars.
There are numerous factors that explain this current state of affairs, but one is the extent to which the scientific community has been unable or unwilling to explain the state and gravity of scientific findings.
We academics will need to evolve to keep up with the major changes going on around us. At stake is how we will maintain our relevance in society.
Sorry state of our public discourse on science
Unfortunately, many excellent scientists are poor communicators who lack the skills or inclination to play the role of educator to the public. Further, we are not trained nor are we given proper incentives to do it. And for that reason, surveys find that many academics do not see it as their role to be “an enabler of direct public participation in decision-making through formats such as deliberative meetings, and do not believe there are personal benefits for investing in these activities.” As a result, we focus inward to our own research communities and remain disconnected from important public and political debate going on around us.
Adding to this growing threat of irrelevance is an alarming antagonism towards science, leading National Geographic to devote its March 2015 cover to “The War on Science.” This manifests itself in a professed lack of appreciation of the academy, particularly within state legislatures that have begun to cut funding to higher education (witness activities in Wisconsin and North Carolina). The problem is not made any easier by the reality that the public, according to surveys by the California Academy of Sciences, the National Science Foundation and others, is not well versed in science and appears unreceptive to attempts by scientists to correct it.
But correct it we must. And, correct it we will, whether we choose to or not. Two forces among many will compel us to change.
Social media washes over academia
Social media is perhaps one of the most disruptive forces in society today, and academia is not immune to its impact. Society now has instant access to more news, stories and information, including scientific information, from more sources and in more varied formats than ever before. For universities to remain relevant, we must learn to engage in the new realities of the information age.
However, the academy is not keeping up. Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), open access journals, online news, blogs and emerging forms of educational technology are altering what it means to be a teacher and a scholar. While we write our articles in academic journals and think we have contributed to public discourse, neither the general public nor politicians read them.
Instead of expecting people outside the academy to come to us, we have to go to them. But other interests are beating us to the punch, publishing their own reports, often with a political agenda, and using social media to have far more impact on public opinion. Add to this changing landscape a rise in pseudo-scientific journals and we must face the reality that if we can continue to write only for specialized scholarly journals, we become relegated further to the sidelines.
A generational shift underway
Today, however, many young people are coming to the academy with a different set of aspirations and goals than their senior advisors.
Many graduate students report that they have chosen a research career precisely because they want to contribute to the real world: to offer their knowledge and expertise in order to make a difference. And many report that if academia doesn’t value engagement or worse discourages it, they will follow a different route, either toward schools that reward such behavior or leave academia for think tanks, NGOs, the government or other organizations that value practical relevance and impact.
The frustration is such that some no longer tell their advisors that they are involved in any form of public engagement, whether it be writing blogs or editorials, working with local communities or organizing training for their peers on public engagement. Will academia eventually spit these emergent scholars out, or will they remain and change academia? Many senior academics hope for the latter, fearing a worrying trend toward a reduction in the level of diversity and quality in the next generation of faculty.
How serious is this threat of irrelevance? In 2010, The Economist wondered if America’s universities could go the way of the Big Three American car companies, unable to see the cataclysmic changes around them and failing to react. Put in less inflammatory, but no less urgent form, University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel offers these thoughts:
“We forget the privilege it is to have lifelong security of employment at a spectacular university. And I don’t think we use it for its intended purpose. I think that faculty on average through the generations are becoming a bit careerist and staying inside our comfort zones. [But] If we’re perceived as being an ivory tower and talking to one another and being proud of our discoveries and our awards and our accomplishments and the letters after our name, I think in the long run the enterprise is going to suffer in society’s eyes, and our potential for impact will diminish. The willingness of society to support us will decrease.”
Signs of hope
Against this gloomy backdrop, there are glimmers of hope as more people rethink the audience for our academic research.
To begin, many faculty are engaging with the public regardless of the lack of formal rewards or training. A 2015 Pew Research Center/AAAS survey found that 43 percent of 3,748 scientists surveyed believe it is important for scientists to get coverage for their work in the news media, 51 percent talk with reporters about research findings, 47 percent use social media to talk about science and 24 percent write blogs. However, another survey at the University of Michigan found that 56 percent of faculty feel that this activity is not valued by tenure committees.
Even on that front, we see changes as promotion and tenure criteria are undergoing experimental changes. For example, the Mayo Clinic’s Academic Appointments and Promotions Committee announced it will include social media and digital activities in its criteria for academic advancement; the American Sociological Association published a white paper on how to evaluate public communication in tenure and promotion; and some schools, like the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan, have added a fourth category to the standard three – research, teaching and service – in its annual review process that captures impact on the world of practice.
Not to be left out, many students are taking charge of their own training in this area. For example, the Researchers Expanding Lay-Audience Teaching and Engagement Program (RELATE) was started at the University of Michigan in 2013 by a group of graduate students to help “early career researchers develop stronger communication skills and actively facilitating a dialogue between researchers and different public communities.”
To help this process move even faster, new kinds of outlets are making it easier for academics to bring their voice directly to the public, such as The Conversation, the Monkey Cage and hundreds more in journals, trade associations and professional societies.
Indeed, it would seem that academia is changing, albeit slowly. The conversation is being engaged by faculty, deans, presidents, journal editors, journal reviewers, donors and students. But in the end, the question is whether the aggregation of these many conversations will reach the critical mass necessary to shift the entire institution of the academy.
Where are we going?
To many, the call for public engagement is an urgent return to our roots and a reengagement of the core purpose of higher education. It is about reexamining what we do, how we do it, and for what audiences. It is part of what Jane Lubchenco called in 1998, “scientists’ social contract,” in which we have an obligation to provide a service to society, to give value for the public funding, government grants or general tuition that we receive and an account of what that money is being used for. The Mayo Clinic nicely outlined the ultimate goal:
“The moral and societal duty of an academic healthcare provider is to advance science, improve the care of his/her patients and share knowledge. A very important part of this role requires physicians to participate in public debate, responsibly influence opinion and help our patients navigate the complexities of healthcare. As Clinician Educators our job is not to create knowledge obscura, trapped in ivory towers and only accessible to the enlightened; the knowledge we create and manage needs to impact our communities.”
While this statement is aimed at health care providers, it applies to all in the scientific endeavor and reminds us that the ultimate value of our work is its service to society.
The tone of this presidential election, often called “uncivil,” has led many to call for an urgent improvement of civic education in America.
Civic education can teach citizens how to deliberate, even when they have political differences. It can enable citizens to find solutions to many problems such as school attendance, economic development or community safety.
For over a decade, we’ve worked as researchers investigating a wide range of questions related to youth civic participation. Over this period, we have observed how civic life has been transformed. New technologies emerged as well as new political and social movements, such as the Tea Party, Occupy Wall Street and the movement for black lives – all of which have changed a civic life. Indeed, today’s youth have a lot more opportunities to express their political views and take action through online platforms.
However, significant gaps remain in one of the most basic forms of civic participation – voter turnout. Only about 40-45 percent of 18-to-29-year-olds turned out to vote in the 2012 election, and gaps among youth remain a concern in 2016.
One big reason for these voting rates is in the way many public K-12 schools are teaching civics: Students may be learning about the mechanics of government, but they are not always required to learn the skills needed for civic participation. Teachers, meanwhile, have voiced concern that lessons about elections and politics will be perceived by some as partisan.
The missing young voters
Currently, there are dramatic gaps among youth when it comes to voter turnout. The young people who regularly vote look like the youth population as a whole because youth do not vote at the same rates. Our analysis of state and federal voting data shows that young people without college experience remain underrepresented.
For example, in the 2012 election, 56 percent of youth with any college experience voted compared to only 29 percent of youth with no college experience. These young people between 18 and 29 make up 40 percent of the youth population.
The gap was just as large in the high turnout election of 2008, where 62 percent of youth with any college experience voted, compared to only 36 percent of youth with no college experience. Our analysis of census data suggests this trend is not new and this gap has existed for decades.
Why is civic participation of youth so low?
Civic education can not only increase youth voting but in doing so also begin to close historic voting gaps. Our research shows, however, civic education itself remains a neglected area in American schools.
Most states do not consider civic education as a vital part of student learning. While social studies is part of the curriculum in most states, reports from 2013 show only eight states assess students’ civic performance.
The curriculum itself leaves much to be desired. Too often, in public schools, civic education is reduced to learning history and dry information about governmental processes. Students learn significantly more historical information – for instance, about wars and individual people – than skills that can teach them how to solve problems.
Research into state social studies curriculum standards shows they often do not include learning in detail about modern parties and their ideologies. The results differ by state, but the general trends are striking. For example, this research indicates that “Democrat” and “Republican” are not often found in school curricula and only 10 states ask that students learn what these parties stand for.
It’s difficult to understand how a young person would understand American politics without this ability to differentiate.
In addition, schools don’t help students connect their learning to practice. It is students in wealthier schools, or who are on a “college track,” who are more likely to find opportunities to learn about civic engagement through discussions or hands-on research that allows them to work on finding solutions to civic problems that they care about.
For example, a group of high school students in Chicago, after learning how to make their voices heard on civic issues, campaigned to have bus stop benches along major bus routes.
Another big challenge when it comes to civic education is public resistance to teaching anything remotely connected to electoral politics in public schools.
In a less controversial election (2012), teachers told us they believed that they would receive a pushback if they taught about politics and elections.
In a national survey of over 700 teachers we conducted during the spring after the 2012 election, more than one in four current teachers of US government or civics said that they would expect criticism from parents or other adults if they taught the election that had taken place that fall. Only one-third (38 percent) said they would get strong support from their district.
Concerns about introducing elections to classrooms are misplaced, since research has not found patterns of teachers influencing students’ preferences in elections. We found in 2012 that taking civics didn’t correlate with either partisanship or vote choice.
Existing research demonstrates that engaging youth in elections before they reach the age of 18 can increase the likelihood of voting. Classroom teaching practices where young people learn about current issues or can practice having conversations with different viewpoints involved can start to close these gaps.
These more active teaching practices allow youth to increase knowledge and develop skills, such as how to communicate effectively with someone with differing views. In turn, this can also build a young person’s confidence in their own ability to participate. Knowledge alone is not enough to ensure future civic engagement.
Our research shows that classroom teaching practices were positively related to informed voting, the idea of voting with accurate knowledge about the democratic system and preferred candidates.
Additionally, preregistration laws, which allow 16- and 17-year-olds to preregister and then automatically join the voter rolls when they turn 18, boost turnout. Appearance on a list of registered voters means that these preregistered youth are more likely to be contacted by parties and interest groups that use lists of registered voters for outreach.
As a result, easing youth into civic participation, through preregistration and starting to experience structured civic participation in the classroom, can prove valuable to later engagement, like voting.
Voting is habit-forming. Closing gaps early by strengthening the connection between school civic education and civic participation could ensure that our electorate will more fully represent the U.S. population.