Student Well-Being

What Students Write to the President Sheds Light on Their Civics Learning

By Sarah D. Sparks — September 04, 2019 3 min read
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The topics that engage American students in civics can vary significantly by their income and racial background, according to a new study in the American Educational Research Journal. But the way students make their case has more to do with their teachers.

“These were not civically dormant students suddenly activated after the election; these letters highlight the capacity for empowered civic learning that mirrors what is more frequently seen outside of classrooms,” the study concludes.

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.

No one topic was at the top of all public school students’ minds and many topics drew broad interest from students, but the researchers found significant differences in which groups of students prioritized particular topics:


  • Students in schools serving either a majority of low-income students or a majority of students of color were significantly more likely to write about issues of race and discrimination; guns; sexual or general violence, and the Black Lives Matter movement, than students in schools that were majority white or higher-income.
  • Students in schools serving a majority of students of color were about twice as likely as students at majority-white schools to write about discrimination, immigration, and police issues.
  • In schools that were not eligible for schoolwide Title I funding to support disadvantaged students, letters were nearly twice as likely to cover school hours and education testing.
  • Students in majority-white schools were significantly more likely to write about issues around homework and grading, veterans, energy, and abortion.

A video by KQED highlights students’ messages:

Making a Case

Researchers also closely analyzed the arguments used in a sample of 138 letters that argued for legislative changes from five schools in five states that were socioeconomically diverse and served a majority of students of color.

Researchers found more than 70 percent of letters used logic arguments, including claims and evidence (though not always cited) or cause-and-effect statements. More than 60 percent made appeals to ethics or morals, and about 25 percent used empathy, such as asking the reader to “walk in someone else’s shoes.”

But the researchers also found big differences in the arguments used from school to school. For example, students in Ohio and Nevada schools made logical arguments in fewer than half of their letters, while students in Michigan, North Carolina, and Florida schools did so in more than 80 percent of their letters. About two-thirds of the letters written in schools in Michigan, Nevada, and Ohio appealed to ethics or morals, while little more than a third of the letters in North Carolina and Florida schools used ethical arguments. The Florida school was the only one of the five in which students used empathy in a majority of their letters.

“You can see some pretty substantial differences in who was using logical arguments, who was using ethical arguments, who was using empathy as a means to pull on heartstrings,” said Antero Godina Garcia, an assistant professor at Stanford University and a co-author of the study. “Oftentimes I think young people are cast either as aloof and not interested or engaged in civics—and I would say these results refute that generally—or that they’re just seen as poorly educated and unable to communicate. But what it comes down to is, I think teachers are teaching kids how to communicate differently.”

In future studies, the researchers are continuing to dig into the data, including: how students thought about what change they wanted and who was responsible for it; how students’ civic identities shape the way they frame arguments; and how students wrote about individual topics. (For example: Students who included empathic arguments in letters about immigration were overwhelmingly in favor of it.) They also hope to analyze student letters in the run-up to the 2020 presidential election, to understand how students’ topics and tone shift over time.

Photo source: Getty

Chart source: AERJ

Video source: KQED, National Writing Project

A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.


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