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Abstract

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Electoral Participation
  4. Educational Experiences that Promote Civic and Political Learning
  5. Diversity in Schools and its Role in Political Development
  6. How Racial Plurality and Classroom Practices May Interact
  7. Dwindling Opportunities for Meaningful Deliberative Discussions
  8. Current Study
  9. Hypotheses
  10. Method
  11. Results
  12. Discussion
  13. References
  14. Biographies

Previous research has found that attending racially pluralistic high schools is associated with a reduced likelihood of future electoral and civic engagement. Analysis of a national survey of 18–24 year olds after the 2012 election confirms this finding. However, certain school and family practices and extracurricular activities appear to compensate. Discussion of controversial current issues in social studies classes diminishes the negative association between attending a racially pluralistic school and electoral engagement. School-based discussion is particularly important for young people who attend pluralistic schools and who do not participate in political discussion at home. Opportunities to associate with peers who share common interests through issue-oriented groups predict electoral engagement. Considering that strong arguments can be made in favor of racial diversity in schools, it is important to compensate for the lessened electoral engagement in diverse schools by creating policies and teacher preparation resources that promote high-quality discussion of controversial issues in classrooms, and by encouraging students to participate in extracurricular groups that address political issues.

Fewer than half (45%) of eligible Americans under the age of 30 voted in the presidential election of 2012 (The Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning & Engagement [CIRCLE]; CIRCLE, 2013). That rate represented a six-point decline since 2008 but was equivalent to turnout in 2004. Overall, youth turnout has been very similar in eight of the last 10 elections (National Conference on Citizenship, 2013), with the exceptions of the 1996 and 2000 elections, when the youth turnout dropped to 37% and 40%, respectively.

Although the trend has been relatively flat, young people of different backgrounds show unequal levels of electoral participation. Young adults with more education, young people living in politically competitive states, and young women turned out at higher rates than average for youth (CIRCLE, 2013). For example, young people with any college experience were almost twice as likely to vote as young people without college. This sort of dramatic difference also manifests in other forms of civic engagement beyond voting (Flanagan, Levine, & Settersten, 2009).

While we pay close attention to how demographic factors are associated with electoral engagement, relatively little attention has been directed to the relationship between electoral engagement and exposure to ideological and racial diversity. This study explores how racial plurality and ideological diversity in high school relate to electoral engagement once students become young adults. Furthermore, we examine mechanisms that could compensate for the challenges young people face in racially pluralistic schools.

Electoral Participation

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Electoral Participation
  4. Educational Experiences that Promote Civic and Political Learning
  5. Diversity in Schools and its Role in Political Development
  6. How Racial Plurality and Classroom Practices May Interact
  7. Dwindling Opportunities for Meaningful Deliberative Discussions
  8. Current Study
  9. Hypotheses
  10. Method
  11. Results
  12. Discussion
  13. References
  14. Biographies

Electoral engagement, which we define as registering to vote, voting, and keeping up with election-related news, is the focal outcome of this study. Evidence strongly suggests that voting is related to educational attainment (Verba, Sholzman, & Brady, 1995). Education is both a component of social class, more broadly, (Nie, Junn, & Stehlik-Barry, 1996) and a factor that directly relates to political participation (Beaumont, 2011; Sherrod, Torney-Purta, & Flanagan, 2010; Sondheimer & Greene, 2010). Educational attainment should be expected to boost voting because knowledge of politics and government is strongly correlated with voting (Delli Carpini & Keeter, 1997), and students study politics and government, gaining interest in politics and government in school (Gimpel, Lay, & Schuknecht, 2003). Evidence from previous research suggests that some education-related experiences specifically promote electoral engagement.

Educational Experiences that Promote Civic and Political Learning

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Electoral Participation
  4. Educational Experiences that Promote Civic and Political Learning
  5. Diversity in Schools and its Role in Political Development
  6. How Racial Plurality and Classroom Practices May Interact
  7. Dwindling Opportunities for Meaningful Deliberative Discussions
  8. Current Study
  9. Hypotheses
  10. Method
  11. Results
  12. Discussion
  13. References
  14. Biographies

Discussion of Current Events and Issues

One example of an educational practice that may boost electoral engagement is encouraging students to exchange opinions about current events and issues in a respectful atmosphere (Campbell, 2008; Torney-Purta, 2002) and, specifically, engaging them in scaffolded discussions of controversial issues (McDevitt & Kiousis, 2006). Kahne, Crow, and Lee (2013) found that open discussions in the classroom promoted participatory citizenship (i.e., interest in politics, openness to multiple perspectives, and intent to vote) even after they controlled for students’ engagement in participatory citizenship activities one year earlier.

Associative Opportunities

Another example of a promising strategy is extracurricular group participation. Associational membership is thought of as an indicator of civic engagement in itself and it correlates with other forms of civic engagement. Thomas and MacFarland (2010) found that even membership in nonpolitical school groups predicted higher turnout later in life. Theoretically, young people can build skills and knowledge for civic contribution and gain access to social networks that pave the way for further civic and political development through associations. We know little, however, about whether these opportunities have differential effects depending on the context of the school, and especially the racial diversity of the student body. Clubs and organizations may be particularly important in a racially pluralistic context because group members often share a common interest, which can create a space for young people to engage in controversial discussions with racially diverse but like-minded peers.

Families’ Role in Political Development

In addition to giving young people opportunities for education and social capital that can lead to civic engagement, parents and other family members have a formative influence on young people's propensity to participate in politics and the content of their political opinions (McIntosh, Hart, & Youniss, 2007), even when children rebel against their parents (Mannheim, 1952). Family socioeconomic background and family's willingness to engage in discussion of current and controversial issues also influence political development (Beaumont, 2011). As Bandura's social learning theory strongly suggests (Bandura, 1977), families can model attitudes in favor of or against discussion of current and controversial issues for their children, and the family climate for such discussions likely interacts with school experiences. In turn, according to the ecological system theory (Bronfenbrenner, 1989), students’ experience at home should further influence the ways in which they react to controversial discussions occurring at school. For example, if parents implicitly or explicitly communicate that it is unacceptable to disagree with another member of the group or present varying opinions about an issue, students are likely to transfer that belief and act in a similar way at school.

Diversity in Schools and its Role in Political Development

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Electoral Participation
  4. Educational Experiences that Promote Civic and Political Learning
  5. Diversity in Schools and its Role in Political Development
  6. How Racial Plurality and Classroom Practices May Interact
  7. Dwindling Opportunities for Meaningful Deliberative Discussions
  8. Current Study
  9. Hypotheses
  10. Method
  11. Results
  12. Discussion
  13. References
  14. Biographies

Previous studies examining the relationship between diversity in the immediate environment, whether it was within classroom, community-at-large, or personal networks, have generally found that racial diversity in the school or community is related to lower levels of electoral engagement (Campbell, 2007; Mutz, 2002; Putnam, 2007). But civic engagement is broader than voting. We review the pertinent literature on racial diversity and civic engagement to provide a more nuanced review of the circumstances in which diverse contexts appear to matter. The findings are mixed. Some studies suggest that racial diversity is particularly challenging when it is associated with ideological diversity (Putnam, 2007), while others indicate that racial diversity can actually enhance intergroup relations and promote civic engagement.

Some research concerns the relationship between demographic or ideological diversity and civic action, such as voting or activism. In general, the finding is that heterogeneity is linked to less action. Residents of communities that are racially and economically heterogeneous tend to be less civically engaged (Alesina & LaFerrara, 2000) and less likely to belong to associations (Costa & Kahn, 2003a), whereas homogeneous communities are more likely to spawn social movements (McAdam, McCarthy, & Zald, 1996). One explanation may be that social capital and trust are lower when communities are racially diverse, yet social capital is useful for action (Costa & Kahn, 2003b). On the other hand, one recent study found that individuals in a politically diverse social network were more likely to be politically engaged, and politically engaged people were more likely to meet peers who held politically diverse views (Quintelier, Stolle, & Harrell, 2012).

Other research investigates the relationship between heterogeneity and discussion or deliberation. Clearly, the availability of diverse views can be a resource for conversation, but it can also discourage discussion if people are conflict-averse or afraid to find themselves in the minority. Some studies have found that being in a homogeneous setting may act as a disincentive for people to engage in deliberative discussions (Oliver, 2001), while greater racial heterogeneity is associated with more political discussion, at least among younger residents (Gimpel et al., 2003). But individuals who are in networks where opposing views are present, called “cross-cutting networks,” face barriers against political discussion and electoral participation (Mutz, 2002, 2006). The spiral of silence theory, originally proposed by Noelle-Neuwmann (1974), explained that individuals who hold opinions that they perceive to be in the minority silence themselves in fear of social isolation, while individuals who think their opinion is dominant or on the rise tend to express their opinion, backed by the perceived sense of safety. People exposed to cross-cutting networks may refrain from expressing their opinions in fear that their opinions are not the dominant view. A meta-analysis (Glynn, Hayes, & Shanahan, 1997) confirmed that when individuals perceive that they hold a minority opinion, they are less willing to express their own opinions. Mutz (2002) extended this evidence and proposed three explanatory mechanisms. First, exposure to diverse range of views can make individuals internally ambivalent—undecided about their own political views—which can hamper political participation. Second, when individuals are embedded in a diverse context, they need to be accountable for multiple stakeholders’ perspectives. Though this social accountability may not directly affect personal political behaviors (such as voting preference), it may do so indirectly, by causing individuals to become conflict-averse. In fact, one study (Klofstad, Kohkey, & McClurg, 2013) found that people who are exposed to higher levels of partisan disagreements are less engaged in certain types of civic behaviors (such as political discussion and working for campaigns). Third, Mutz (2002) found that conflict-aversion mediates the relationship between cross-cutting network exposure and lower intent to vote. Once the interaction effect of conflict avoidance and cross-cutting networks was accounted for, the effect of belong to a cross-cutting network was not a significant predictor of intent to vote.

There are few studies on classroom diversity and its implications for civic education practices and civic engagement. However, this is an important area for research. Given the findings about community-diversity and cross-cutting networks, we would predict that young people who attend racially diverse schools would become less electorally engaged as adults because they would have fewer opportunities to engage in deliberative discussions and form a participatory political identity. Research largely confirms this assumption, though there are some findings that point to an alternative conclusion.

Campbell (2007) confirmed this assertion by testing specifically how within-classroom racial diversity was associated with two outcomes: open classroom climate (i.e., a climate where students are exposed to different views, and can freely disagree with peers and with teachers in a respectful manner) and students’ intent to become informed voters. Campbell found negative relationships between diversity and both outcomes. Furthermore, a recent analysis of a large-scale data from the Chicago Public School system (Jacobsen, Frankenberg, & Lenhoff, 2012) indicated that there were fewer civic learning opportunities and civic engagement for 9th to 11th graders in schools that were racially pluralistic: having significant proportions of White, Black, and Hispanic students. These students reported lower rates of civic engagement than students from other schools, after controlling for a host of factors.

Some research finds that racially diverse and politically pluralistic settings can enrich political efficacy as well as attitudes toward the out-groups (Pettigrew & Tropp, 2006; Tropp & Prenovost, 2008). Therefore, racial diversity in the classroom should not necessarily hinder intergroup discussions or lower engagement. Other studies also found that attending diverse school is associated with more positive attitudes toward democracy and civic engagement in general (Kurlaender & Yun, 2005, 2007), and the graduates of diverse high schools feel more comfortable interacting with people of various backgrounds, even as adults than students from nondiverse schools (Wells, Holmes, Revilla, & Atando, 2009). Data from the Political Engagement Project (Beaumont, 2011) also suggested that racially pluralistic programs that provided meaningful opportunities for discussions could be successful.

How Racial Plurality and Classroom Practices May Interact

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Electoral Participation
  4. Educational Experiences that Promote Civic and Political Learning
  5. Diversity in Schools and its Role in Political Development
  6. How Racial Plurality and Classroom Practices May Interact
  7. Dwindling Opportunities for Meaningful Deliberative Discussions
  8. Current Study
  9. Hypotheses
  10. Method
  11. Results
  12. Discussion
  13. References
  14. Biographies

The definition of racial diversity has become increasingly complex in today's school setting. It is no longer sufficient to define diversity by the presence of non-White students in the schools. Jacobsen et al. (2012) make an argument that having significant representation from three or more racial groups is qualitatively different from having representation from just one minority group or having very modest representation from various groups. According to Jacobsen and colleagues, this kind of diversity triggers changes in pedagogy because it allows sufficient intergroup contacts, and, therefore, provides an opportunity for beneficial intergroup learning. On the other hand, racial diversity can pose challenges for teachers, especially if they are not prepared to deal with multiple perspectives and potential conflicts. For example, racial diversity may cause inexperienced teachers to avoid any conversation that may potentially cause conflicts (Morris, 2005).

Based on these findings, we distinguished students in “pluralistic” schools from others, regardless of the participants’ racial background, for two reasons. First, students in a small minority group may be regarded as “tokens” and their teachers may not feel the need to spend significant amounts of time on intergroup dialogue. Second, students who belong to a very small group may either integrate themselves into the mainstream culture of the school or stick together as a tight-knit peer group that does not interact with the majority very much. Students in these circumstances are unlikely to experience significant intergroup disagreements or conflicts. On the other hand, having large enough representation from multiple racial groups without having a predominant group could present both an opportunity to learn about working with peers of diverse backgrounds and a source of conflict if peer groups are divisive and tend to avoid interacting with one another.

Dwindling Opportunities for Meaningful Deliberative Discussions

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Electoral Participation
  4. Educational Experiences that Promote Civic and Political Learning
  5. Diversity in Schools and its Role in Political Development
  6. How Racial Plurality and Classroom Practices May Interact
  7. Dwindling Opportunities for Meaningful Deliberative Discussions
  8. Current Study
  9. Hypotheses
  10. Method
  11. Results
  12. Discussion
  13. References
  14. Biographies

The current cohort of school-aged children and young adults represents the most diverse generation in the United States to date (El Nasser & Overberg, 2010; Mickelson & Nkomo, 2012; Orfield, 2009), and these young people need to learn to communicate and collaborate with individuals who come from diverse racial backgrounds who may also represent cross-cutting networks. Even though a diverse national population increases the importance of discussion, various obstacles may prevent students from engaging in meaningful, deliberative discussions in classrooms. First, U.S. schools have become more, not less, segregated due to economic stratification (Orfield, Kucsera, & Siegel-Hawley, 2012), limiting opportunities for students to be exposed to cross-cutting networks. Second, there are intense pressures from parents and school administrators not to engage in controversial discussion, even if teachers want to engage in conversations about social and political issues in a diverse classroom (Galston, 2010; Hess, 2004, 2009). About one quarter of Civics and American government teachers feel that they may receive criticism from parents for talking about politics (The Commission on Youth Voting and Civic Knowledge, 2013) and they may also be restricted by district leadership and school boards. Third, although a majority of high school students report experiencing current and controversial issues discussions in social studies classes (Kawashima-Ginsberg, 2013), some evidence suggests that intensive and sustained opportunities for deliberation, such as classes that involve frequent (if not daily) discussion of current events, have diminished (Levine, Lopez, & Marcelo, 2008; Niemi & Smith, 2001). This is especially the case because of the pressure to prioritize language arts, math, and science curriculum at the cost of social studies (West, 2007). Previous studies found that discussion of social issues are rare and more likely to occur in classrooms of privileged students (Nystrand, Wu, Gamoran, Zeiser, & Long, 2003). Finally, the recent intensity of political polarization (Galston, 2010) can make young people's electoral participation controversial because they belong to a generation that voted Democratic by wide margins in two consecutive elections. To complicate matters, the opportunity for rich civic practices like discussion of contemporary and controversial issues is not evenly distributed across the socioeconomic and racial spectrum (Kahne & Middaugh, 2008; Kawashima-Ginsberg, 2013; Levinson, 2012), further disadvantaging many students. In sum, the need to develop skills to engage in political discussions in a diverse context is increasing while the opportunities seem to be diminishing and unevenly distributed.

Current Study

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Electoral Participation
  4. Educational Experiences that Promote Civic and Political Learning
  5. Diversity in Schools and its Role in Political Development
  6. How Racial Plurality and Classroom Practices May Interact
  7. Dwindling Opportunities for Meaningful Deliberative Discussions
  8. Current Study
  9. Hypotheses
  10. Method
  11. Results
  12. Discussion
  13. References
  14. Biographies

The current study explored how exposure to racially pluralistic schools, classroom, and family practice, and political discussions and disagreements, peer context, and group membership relate to electoral engagement in the 2012 presidential election. To our knowledge, this is the first article to explore the effect of an interaction between exposure to classroom-based controversial discussion and the racial context of the high school on current electoral engagement. The study's design allowed us to look at the relationship between electoral engagement and past civic education exposure retrospectively. We proposed the following hypotheses.

Hypotheses

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Electoral Participation
  4. Educational Experiences that Promote Civic and Political Learning
  5. Diversity in Schools and its Role in Political Development
  6. How Racial Plurality and Classroom Practices May Interact
  7. Dwindling Opportunities for Meaningful Deliberative Discussions
  8. Current Study
  9. Hypotheses
  10. Method
  11. Results
  12. Discussion
  13. References
  14. Biographies
H1.

Young people of different racial backgrounds will differ on ideology, party identification, and opinions on various political issues. If true, we can assume that racially pluralistic schools (i.e., schools in which no one racial group dominates the student body) are indeed more likely to expose students to cross-cutting networks.

H2.

Young people who attend racially pluralistic schools will be less likely to recall having controversial issues discussions at school and at home.

H3.

Young people from racially pluralistic schools will be less electorally engaged.

H4.

Opportunities to have controversial issues discussion through high school civics can at least partially weaken the negative association between attendance at a racially pluralistic school and electoral engagement.

H5.

Belonging to a group, especially a kind of group that addresses social or political issues, will be associated with higher levels of electoral engagement.

Method

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Electoral Participation
  4. Educational Experiences that Promote Civic and Political Learning
  5. Diversity in Schools and its Role in Political Development
  6. How Racial Plurality and Classroom Practices May Interact
  7. Dwindling Opportunities for Meaningful Deliberative Discussions
  8. Current Study
  9. Hypotheses
  10. Method
  11. Results
  12. Discussion
  13. References
  14. Biographies

Participants

A total of 4,483 young American citizens aged 18–24 were recruited to participate in a random-digit-dialing telephone interview. The final sample of the participants was representative of the U.S. 18- to 24-year-old citizen population.1

Design and Procedure

The CIRCLE at Tufts University worked with Universal Survey, Inc. to administer a 17-minute surveys (1/3 landline and 2/3 cell phone sample). The interviews began the day after the 2012 presidential election and went on for 6 weeks. In order to allow maximum number of questions to be asked for the whole sample, the survey used three parallel forms, each of which contained approximately 75 questions. The survey asked questions about current behaviors (e.g., electoral and civic participation, college enrollment) and about respondents’ recollection their high school civic education and group experiences. Most respondents had either completed or left high school at the time of phone interviews.

Measures

The survey asked questions about civic and political engagement, civic knowledge, and educational context. We present the measures that are relevant to the current study's hypotheses.2

Dependent Variables

Electoral engagement

Electoral engagement is an additive index that is a sum score of: (1) registration, (2) voting, and (3) keeping up with the news about election at least somewhat frequently. The score ranges from 0 to 3, 3 being the highest engagement. We calculated the electoral engagement score only if responses were available for all the three items.3

Independent Variables

Racial plurality in high school

In this article, we identified a “racially pluralistic” school as one in which (according to the survey respondent) no predominant group existed. Based on their own racial identity and perceived racial composition of the high school, participants were grouped into three categories: majority group (the participant's race matches the predominant racial group in the school), minority group (the participant's race is different from the predominant group), and racially pluralistic group (regardless of the participant's own race, there was no predominant racial group). A person could be classified as attending a racially pluralistic school regardless of his or her own racial background. For example, a White participant could be in any of the three groups, depending on how she or he described the high school racial composition. We used the term racially pluralistic to distinguish it from mixed-raced schools where there is a dominant majority (e.g., 80% Whites, 20% African Americans).

School-based civic practices and opportunities

We asked participants to recall their experiences with civic practices and civic learning opportunities in high school. We asked a set of questions about specific experiences within civics or social studies class in high school and questions related to the overall climate for student voice and disagreement in the high school. We also asked whether participants belonged to any group that addressed social or political issues at school. For the civics class questions, we asked participants about civic education practices that are considered promising (Civic Mission of Schools, 2011; Gibson & Levine, 2003). We also asked about students’ perception of their school's democratic climate (e.g., whether students had a say in how the school was run) and group membership in high school (e.g., belonging to any group and whether the group addressed social/political issues).

Parental encouragement of political discussion and expression of voice

We measured family climate for political discussion and engagement using four items: (1) parental encouragement for voting, (2) newspaper subscription at home, (3) frequency of political discussions with parents (currently), and (4) parental encouragement for expression of opinions, including disagreements. The item responses made an additive index, ranging from 0 to 4 (score not calculated if an item was missing). The scores were then categorized into three groups of approximately equal size, representing high encouragement, medium encouragement, and low encouragement.

Strength of party identification

We asked the participants to identify which political party they identified with, and how strongly they identified with that party in a response set ranging from “strong Republican” through “independent” to “strong Democrat.” We then recoded this answer to code the strength of identification with a specific political party, where strong Republicans and strong Democrats would be both identified as “strong partisan,” whereas “independent or no political affiliation” would be classified as “no identification.” Scores on this indicator ranged from 0 to 2 (score not calculated if response missing).

Control Variables

Educational progress

We used a measure of educational progress, rather than educational attainment, because for a sample of young adults, educational attainment (i.e., how many years of education a person has completed) is highly dependent on age, and many are planning to gain more education. To control for the effect of age, we calculated educational progress as standardized units away from the age-specific mean of educational attainment. A higher score means that the respondent has completed more education compared to the participants who were of the same age.4

Family socioeconomic status

In this analysis, we estimated socioeconomic status of the family of origin as a composite score (standardized) of the following indicators: (1) maternal education, (2) number of books in the home, (3) daily newspaper subscription in the home.5 We did not assess personal income because income is not a good predictor of family socioeconomic background or future earnings for young people.

Analytic Approach

We first tested whether multilevel modeling was warranted for this analysis, because we predicted that state-specific laws about registration and voting (e.g., voter ID laws, restrictions on early voting, limits on registration drives) would have some influence on the relation between civic education practice and current electoral engagement since these laws can facilitate or inhibit the act of voting itself. However, we found that individual-level electoral engagement did not vary systematically by between-state factors.6 Therefore, we proceeded with individual-level analysis, and chose to use analysis of covariance [ANCOVA] to estimate the effects of a pluralistic high school, exposure to classroom-based controversial discussions in civics class, parents’ encouragement for political discussion and expression, and participation in social–political groups, individually, and in combinations, controlling for socioeconomic status, educational progress, and strength of political identification.

Results

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Electoral Participation
  4. Educational Experiences that Promote Civic and Political Learning
  5. Diversity in Schools and its Role in Political Development
  6. How Racial Plurality and Classroom Practices May Interact
  7. Dwindling Opportunities for Meaningful Deliberative Discussions
  8. Current Study
  9. Hypotheses
  10. Method
  11. Results
  12. Discussion
  13. References
  14. Biographies

Descriptives

We tested whether the participants who attended diverse schools were demographically different from those who attended as the majority or minority in their schools, and whether the participants from diverse schools recalled receiving different types of civic opportunities from those who attended other types of schools. We found that in fact, the participants who attended pluralistic schools came from less affluent backgrounds and were behind their peers in their educational progress. The participants from pluralistic high schools were also more likely to be persons of color: 23.9% of Whites attended racially pluralistic high schools, while 53.1% of Blacks and 55.7% of Hispanics attended diverse high schools. Young people of immigrant background were more likely to attend pluralistic high schools (50.4%) than young people of nonimmigrant backgrounds (33.3%). For more comparisons, please see Table 1.7

Table 1. Demographic Differences among Young People Who Attended Pluralistic and Other Schools
 % Among pluralistic% Among other types
Variableschool sampleof schools
Note
  1. *p < .05, *p < .01, ***p < .001, two-tailed.

Non-Hispanic White***39.1%72.3%
Black/African American***21.7%11.1%
Hispanic/Latino***26.4%12.2%
Asian and Pacific Islander***6.1%2.1%
Socioeconomic status (composite standardized score)***  
Median.02.13
College completed***12.1%21.6%
Median educational attainmentHigh school graduate,Some college
 trade schoolexperience
Liberal27.9%27.1%
Conservative*25.4%29.4%
Moderate33.3%33.5%
Democrats**41.3%35.3%
Republicans**15.7%26.1%

Despite these large differences in demographic backgrounds, participants from pluralistic schools reported receiving similar social studies content and pedagogy as others. They reported that similar major themes had been emphasized in their social studies classes and recalled similar experiences with discussion of current events, discussion of controversial issues, keeping up with news as a class requirement, conducting research about a community, and doing a community project. Participants were also similar in their perception of the social studies class as being relevant today and were equally likely to report that they had learned specifically about voting. However, participants from diverse schools were less likely to receive a high level of parental encouragement for political discussion and engagement, reported a lower level of peer civic climate (now as young adults), and were less likely to participate in group/associations in high school. When they did participate in a group, participants from racially pluralistic schools were as likely to participate in a group that addressed social or political issues as participants who attended nonpluralistic schools (Table 2).

Table 2. Difference between Racially Pluralistic School Sample and Others in Social Studies Experiernce and Group Association
 % Among pluralistic% Among other
Variableschoolsschools
Note
  1. *p < .05, **p < .01, ***p < .001, two-tailed.

Exposure to civic education practices  
Current events63.2%65.1%
Controversial discussions68.7%69.1%
Belonged to any group in school***61.6%68.9%
Type of groups opportunities, in or out of school  
Group(s) that did not address social or political issues*37.4%43.8%
Group that did address social or political issue27.1%29.4%

Findings

Variations in ideology, party identification, and opinions by race

As predicted in H1, young people of different racial backgrounds differed significantly on ideology, party identification, and opinions related to specific issues, meaning that a racially pluralistic school would likely expose students to ideological and political diversity as well. African Americans were more likely to identify as Democrats than White, Hispanic, or Asian respondents. White respondents were more likely to identify as Republicans than all other groups.8 Furthermore, Hispanic respondents were more likely to consider themselves to be liberal than African American and White respondents. Respondents also differed on the issues that they felt were most important to address. While White respondents rated unemployment and the federal deficit as the two most important issues (34.0% and 31.6%, respectively), African American respondents heavily emphasized unemployment (56.5%) over the deficit (14.6%). A significant portion of Hispanic respondents (20.8%) chose immigration as the top priority, while 5% of or less of White and Black respondents chose immigration.

The effect of controversial discussions on electoral engagement

We found that attendance in a racially pluralistic school was associated with a lower level of electoral engagement (F1, 2578 = 8.25, p < .001), but that the negative effect of racial plurality could be mitigated somewhat by classroom-based controversial discussions (F1, 2578 = 5.69, p < .05). On the other hand, controversial discussion had no significant effect on students who attended nonpluralistic schools. Overall, the strongest predictor of electoral engagement was the strength of party identification (F1, 2578 = 89.50, p < .001). Educational progress (F1, 2578 = 12.33, p < .001) and parents’ encouragement for political discussion and discourse (F1, 2578 = 7.74, p < .001) were also strong predictors. Once all other factors were accounted, family socioeconomic status was not a significant factor. These findings suggest that controversial discussion in classroom is particularly important if the school is racially pluralistic (see Table 3). Reasons for that will be explored in the discussion section.

Table 3. Analysis of Covariance for Electoral Engagement
SourceSSdfMSFp
  1. Model R2 = .199 (adjusted R2 = .185).

Discussed controversial issues in HS.6211.621.790.374
Belonged to a group addressing social–political issues7.35723.6794.676.009
Attended racially pluralistic HS6.48916.4898.248.004
Parent encouraged civic discussion and discourse12.17926.0907.741.000
Peers electorally engaged73.390236.69546.646.000
Family socioeconomic status.8421.8421.071.301
Educational progress (centered on age-mean)9.70319.70312.334.000
Strength of partisan identification70.404170.40489.497.000
Pluralistic HS × controversial discussions4.47814.4785.692.017
Parent encouragement × controversial discussions5.14722.5743.272.038
Peer electoral engagement × controversial discussions.9832.492.625.535
Social–political group × controversial discussions1.8032.9011.146.318
Social–political group × racially pluralistic HS2.60521.3031.656.191
Parent encouragement × racially pluralistic HS4.74422.3723.015.049
Peer electoral engagement × racially pluralistic HS3.24621.6232.063.127
Social–political groups × pluralistic HS × peer electoral engagement7.4478.9311.183.305
Parent encouragement × pluralistic HS × peer electoral engagement7.5378.9421.198.296
Social–political groups × pluralistic HS × controversial discussions.6022.301.383.682
Error1,994.9882,536.787  
Total9,786.0002,579   
Corrected total2,489.2792,578   
Family encouragement and classroom-based controversial discussion

Classroom-based controversial discussion had a significant effect on later electoral engagement when the respondents' family showed a low level of support for expression of opinion and disagreements (F1, 2578 = 7.74, p < .05). When young people had low parent encouragement but experienced classroom-based controversial discussions, their electoral engagement level was equivalent to that of young people whose parents showed a medium level of encouragement, regardless of whether they engaged in controversial discussions in schools. This is particularly important given the finding that students attending racially pluralistic high schools were also less likely to receive parental support for political discussion and disagreements.

Role of student clubs

Finally, we found that belonging to a group predicted a higher level of electoral engagement (F1, 2578 = 4.68, p < .01). Examination of marginal means suggests that belonging to a group that addresses social–political issue was beneficial, while belonging to a group that did not address such issues had no positive effect. Membership in a social–political group was beneficial regardless of the type of school participants attended.

Discussion

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Electoral Participation
  4. Educational Experiences that Promote Civic and Political Learning
  5. Diversity in Schools and its Role in Political Development
  6. How Racial Plurality and Classroom Practices May Interact
  7. Dwindling Opportunities for Meaningful Deliberative Discussions
  8. Current Study
  9. Hypotheses
  10. Method
  11. Results
  12. Discussion
  13. References
  14. Biographies

Consistent with the findings from Mutz (2002, 2006) and Campbell (2007), young people who recall attending racially pluralistic high schools were exposed to more diverse political views and were less electorally engaged. However, this study made two important advances in exploring this relationship. First, we distinguished between racially pluralistic schools and mixed-race schools with a dominant group (a traditional definition of diversity conflates the two types) and found that racially pluralistic schools can be particularly challenging for civic learning and development. Second, we found that controversial discussions can compensate for the negative effect of attending racially pluralistic schools. We also found that classroom-based controversial discussion could compensate for a lack of political discussion and civic encouragement in the family of origin. Participating in groups that address social and political issues was beneficial for all young people, while groups that did not address these issues had no apparent effects. This was contrary to Thomas and McFarland's study that found that any group association was beneficial for voting.

For our outcome of electoral engagement, the absolute difference between students who did and did not experience controversial discussions is much larger in pluralistic schools. One explanation is that discussion is better in schools that have many racial groups. The diversity of students’ backgrounds and circumstances is an asset, enriching the conversations and causing them to boost engagement more. Another explanation is that the difference is greater because students in pluralistic schools lack access to other opportunities for political discussions and deliberations. For them, an organized discussion in a social studies classroom may have substantial benefits because they do not have similar discussions at home, in other classes, or in the school community.

Our findings suggest that schools can promote civic development by providing a space for young people to exchange opinions and disagree safely, but students in racially pluralistic schools may have trouble expressing their opinions because they experience cross-cutting networks, making them unsure of what is “safe” to say. This result is consistent with Mutz (2002, 2006). However, our study also suggests that this challenge can be addressed by issue-oriented clubs and thoughtful intergroup discussions in social studies class (among other means).

Our findings have implications for classroom-based instruction, for policies and funding, and for family resources that support frequent discussion of current issues. Above all, students whose family environments do not provide ample opportunities for discussion of current events and a safe climate for disagreements should be provided with opportunities to talk about politics in another setting. Many barriers need to be addressed in order for students who are most in need of these practices to actually engage in high-quality current events discussion.

First is a type of educational inequality called the “civic opportunity gap” (Kahne & Middaugh, 2008; Levine, 2009; Levinson, 2012). Students who attended racially pluralistic schools were also more likely to come from low socioeconomic status [SES] SES background (Orfield et al., 2012). Lower SES schools are more likely to be under pressure to spend more time on test preparation than on activities, such as classroom-based controversial discussions or other enriching civic education practices. Our study suggests that well-planned, open-minded controversial discussions should be offered in our poorest, racially pluralistic schools.

A second barrier is that conducting productive and deliberative discussions is challenging in the current era of political polarization (Levine & Kawashima-Ginsberg, 2013; McAvoy & Hess, 2013). Teachers may not be prepared to lead discussions of current issues in social studies classrooms, especially when they expect controversial discussion or potential conflicts related to race (Morris, 2005). Thus far, little is known about how much pre- or in-service training for facilitating such discussions in racially diverse settings is available and utilized. However, young people who attended pluralistic high schools were as likely to report having controversial discussions as the students from other schools, and yet pluralistic school students still reported lower levels of electoral engagement. This triggers more questions. For example, it is possible that racially pluralistic schools are also in racially pluralistic communities that have lower levels of civic engagement (Costa & Kahn, 2003a), therefore, affecting young people's electoral engagement level. McAvoy and Hess (2013) recommend four practices that promote deliberative discussions that help students learn, which are: (1) choose the “right” topic (e.g., sparks disagreements and invites multiple perspectives), (2) understand and use open/closed and policy/empirical discussions correctly, (3) embrace ideological diversity, and (4) avoid political proselytizing (pp. 36–43).

Third, having a controversial discussion in a racially pluralistic and ideologically diverse context carries more social risk, in that engaging in a discussion of controversial political issues can expose students who are likely to face disagreements, and potentially, alienation. This context may make expression of opinions more difficult, leading students to become more conflict-averse. The more conflict-adverse a person is, the less likely she or he is to engage politically (Mutz, 2006). Therefore, it is more difficult to lead a fruitful and effective discussion in a context where conflict may arise. Training resources should be developed for teachers to help them understand the social cost of controversial discussions for some students, and to take on current issue discussions, when opportunities rise.

Fourth, our study points to the importance of preserving strong extracurricular activities, and especially the kinds of groups that address social or political issues. Extracurricular activities, particularly within racially pluralistic schools, potentially provide the only place where young people can find like-minded peers, feel safe, and explore newly emerging political identities and opinions with peers who understand and support them.

Finally, though it is not the focus of this article, the findings highlight the crucial role the family plays in the development of electoral engagement. Controlling for socioeconomic background, a family's propensity to listen to young people's opinions, to tolerate disagreement, and to encourage voting and political expression predicted electoral engagement. Like teachers, parents may not know how to start talking about political issues with their children or when to start having these discussions. Although many personal and cultural factors play a role in making these decisions, resources should be made available to parents who want to learn how to start these conversations with their children, as there is a very clear benefit when parents are willing to listen to their children.

Limitations and Future Directions

The current study was unique and valuable because it was based on a large-scale survey of young citizens who were eligible to vote in the 2012 presidential election. A wide range of questions captured young people's educational experiences and how and why they were engaged during and right after the 2012 presidential election. However, the study had limitations that should be addressed in future research. We used a cross-sectional survey, which introduces well-known sources of bias. Self-selection is one. People who held favorable views of political participation even before high school might elect to take engaging courses and programs, in which case their predispositions (not measured here) would be partly responsible for their higher rates of civic engagement. Further, experiences in high school were measured through self-reports. Young adults who are now engaged might recall and report positive experiences in high school even if they did not receive such experiences at a higher rate than their peers did. The dependent variables were also self-reported. We estimate that the turnout among 18–24 year olds in 2012 was 41.2% (CIRCLE, 2013). In the survey discussed here, 59.9% said they voted and 52.6% said they had voted and told us whom they had chosen. That degree of overestimation is very typical for a political survey, and probably reflects a combination of two factors: voters are more likely to participate in surveys than nonvoters, and some people claim they voted when they did not. Thus, the results of this study should be treated as modestly skewed toward voters.

Finally, one of the key predictors of current electoral engagement is a composite that refers to young people's interaction with parents at present (and whether parents ever encouraged them to vote). While research clearly shows that parents play a key role in young adults’ political identity and efficacy development (Beaumont, 2011), it is likely that adolescents and young adults can change parents’ behaviors and dispositions by initiating political discussions with their parents and discussing these issues in a mature and informed manner. It has been shown that school-based deliberative discussions can affect young adults’ propensity to actively engage parents in discussions (McDevitt & Chaffee, 2000) and possibly create an open family climate for discussion, but our analysis took a conservative approach and assumed that parents’ openness for discussion and encouragement of disagreements was not affected by youth or their school experiences. Thus, if controversial discussion and other civic education practices indeed changed parents’ behaviors, our analysis would have missed it.

Future studies could address these limitations by developing true or natural experiments and following students over time, with verified records of voting, ideally using a mixed-method approach to identify specific elements of controversial discussions that are related to an increase in civic engagement in racially pluralistic and nonpluralistic settings. Future research would also benefit from investigating whether changes in youth's knowledge, skills, dispositions, and behaviors can lead to changes in classroom contexts and families’ climates for open and deliberative discussions.

  1. 1

    Based on authors’ tabulation of CPS March 2012 data. Contact the corresponding author to obtain a table of the sample characteristics and the survey used for this study.

  2. 2

    Contact the corresponding author to obtain a copy of the survey.

  3. 3

    Registration and voting are hierarchical, meaning that participants who were not registered to vote were automatically assumed to be nonvoters.

  4. 4

    We recognize that educational progress is probably an indicator of family socioeconomic status as much as predictor of educational attainment later in life, because young people who have financial resources from family are most likely to be able to complete their education without major barriers, namely, paying their way through college by working part or full time.

  5. 5

    Although it is debatable whether newspaper subscription should be included in the calculation of family socioeconomic class, we chose to do so because newspaper subscription correlated significantly with educational attainment and educational progress.

  6. 6

    The survey's overall objective was to explore the relationship among state voter laws, civic education policy, individual factors, and civic and political engagement. To that end, we collected state-level data (e.g., civic education standards, new legislations on voter laws, Pew Election Performance Index, statewide turnout among adults 30 and older, nonprofit density, and baseline civic engagement level) and considered each survey respondent to be “nested” within the state of their residence, and/or the state in which they attended high school. Our approach was to first conduct hierarchical linear models [HLM] with each outcome of the interest to assess whether there were enough systematic variations attributable to state-level factors. To do so, we examined the variance components and calculated Intraclass Correlation Coefficient (ICC) from the null model to estimate the portion of outcome variance that is attributable to state factors. If the variance component is significant and the ICC is sufficiently large (>5%), we proceeded with the model using Hirarchical Linear Modeling (HLM) software (version 7, SSI, Inc., 2012), that allows analysis of multilevel data. If the model did not meet the above criteria, multilevel modeling was not warranted due to lack of systematic variation by state. In that case, we proceeded with individual-level analysis. In our analysis, we tested whether multilevel modeling was needed, and found that there was not enough systematic variations by state.

  7. 7

    More detailed tables of the sample characteristics, participant characteristics by school type, and racial backgrounds can be found at http://www.civicyouth.org/asap_kawashima_ginsberg_levine2013/.

  8. 8

    For more specific data, contact the corresponding author.

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  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Electoral Participation
  4. Educational Experiences that Promote Civic and Political Learning
  5. Diversity in Schools and its Role in Political Development
  6. How Racial Plurality and Classroom Practices May Interact
  7. Dwindling Opportunities for Meaningful Deliberative Discussions
  8. Current Study
  9. Hypotheses
  10. Method
  11. Results
  12. Discussion
  13. References
  14. Biographies
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Biographies

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Electoral Participation
  4. Educational Experiences that Promote Civic and Political Learning
  5. Diversity in Schools and its Role in Political Development
  6. How Racial Plurality and Classroom Practices May Interact
  7. Dwindling Opportunities for Meaningful Deliberative Discussions
  8. Current Study
  9. Hypotheses
  10. Method
  11. Results
  12. Discussion
  13. References
  14. Biographies
  • KEI KAWASHIMA-GINSBERG is Deputy Director of the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning & Engagement (CIRCLE), part of Jonathan M. Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service at Tufts University.

  • PETER LEVINE is Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship & Public Affairs at Tufts University and Director of CIRCLE.