School & District Management What the Research Says

Students’ Letters to the President Reveal Civics Engagement, Style

By Sarah D. Sparks — September 10, 2019 1 min read
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Students’ civic priorities can vary significantly by their family’s income and racial background, finds a study in the American Educational Research Journal. But the way students make the case for their priorities may have more to do with the schools they attend.

Before the presidential elections in 2008 and 2016, some 20,000 students in more than 1,100 schools participated in Letters to the Next President, a classroom initiative by the National Writing Project and the National Public Radio station KQED. Students wrote in from all over the country, tagging their missives with many topics that have remained in the public debate today, from immigration and climate change to school spending and racial discrimination.

Stanford University researchers Antero Garcia, Amber Maria Levinson, and Emma Carene Gargroetzi analyzed the messages of 11,000 students written in the lead-up to the 2016 presidential election, categorizing them by topic and their schools’ geographic region and racial, socioeconomic, and other demographics.

Many topics drew broad interest from students, but the researchers also found significant differences in which groups of students prioritized particular topics. For example, students in schools serving a majority of students of color were twice as likely as those at majority-white schools to write about discrimination, immigration, and police issues, the study found. In schools that were not eligible for schoolwide Title I funding for disadvantaged students, letters were nearly twice as likely to focus on school hours and education testing.

Researchers also found differences in how students advocated, based on a sample of 138 letters that argued for legislative changes, written by students in racially and socioeconomically diverse schools in five states.

For example, students in the Ohio and Nevada schools made logical arguments in fewer than half their letters, while those in Michigan, North Carolina, and Florida did so in more than 80 percent of them. Two-thirds of the letters written in Michigan, Nevada, and Ohio appealed to ethics or morals, while just over a third of those from North Carolina and Florida used ethical arguments. The Florida school was the only one in which students used empathy in a majority of letters.

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A version of this article appeared in the September 11, 2019 edition of Education Week as Students’ Letters to the President Reveal Civics Engagement, Style


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