To the Editor:
In response to “Youths’ Civic Engagement Seen to Rise” (April 22, 2009), which reports on research findings showing that young people today are voting in greater percentages and volunteering more while still in high school, compared with their parents’ generation:
After reading your article, I couldn’t decide whether or not I should run around waving my hands in victory, as one of many who have spent decades trying to reverse a steady trend of youth disengagement in America. Tempering my enthusiasm was the research showing that most of the young people who do become civically involved are fairly well-to-do and expect to attend college. They are asked to join in civic efforts, provided with classroom activities to heighten their awareness of societal issues, and expected to demonstrate how they use their learning to make a difference in the larger world. It is mostly disadvantaged and low-achieving students who are not asked or prepared to solve common problems of a larger community.
When I served on the National Commission on Service-Learning, we came across this same phenomenon of a two-track system through which more-affluent students receive an active, problem-solving curriculum, while poor and underachieving students receive a passive curriculum focused on preparing for state tests. While developing our recommendation on whether every student should have an annual civic or service experience built into the school curriculum, or whether exemptions should be made for some students, we turned to Cameron Dary, an 11-year-old student and a member of our group. He convinced us to be widely inclusive by asking, “Shouldn’t all kids in America be equal and learn how to contribute?”
The research cited in your article supports what Cameron knew: What students do in school is strongly related to what they do later on in life. Maybe now, in a new age of valuing service, we might gain a consensus about an essential element of education for each and every child: how to be part of a self-renewing democracy. When that happens, both my hands will rise with joy.
A version of this article appeared in the May 20, 2009 edition of Education Week as Civic Engagement: Tilted Toward Affluent Students?