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American Ignorance Is Sinking the Nation

The less American citizens know about how our country works, the worse our country seems to work.

The Educational Testing Service, perhaps best known for administering educational and assessments tests, including the GRE, has released a report that links weak civics knowledge to less voting, less volunteering and greater distrust in government.

Fault Lines in Our Democracy: Civic Knowledge, Voting Behavior and Civic Engagement in the United States, written by Richard J. Coley of the ETS Center for Research on Human Capital and Education and Andrew Sum of the Center for Labor Market Studies, Northeastern University, warns that many students in U.S. schools lack acceptable levels of knowledge about civics.

The report said that students were less interested in social studies and civic engagement and that less educated and poorer young people and adults were less likely to participate even as the nation continues to struggle with the economy, budget deficits, an aging infrastructure and struggling public schools—all issues that affect most Americans’ day-to-day lives.

“Solutions will have to come from a well-educated, skilled and creative workforce,” Coley said in a statement announcing the results. “For our democracy to function so that we meet these challenges, our nation must have better-educated citizens who understand how our democratic system works, believe in it and participate by voting and volunteering.”

In fact, according to the report released last month, only 22 percent of eighth-graders could name a role played by the U.S. Supreme Court, while just 27 percent of fourth-graders could explain the purpose of the Constitution.

The adults aren’t setting much of an example for them either.

Despite the credit given to young adults who purportedly helped turn the tide for Barack Obama, the report said that less than half of 18-to-24 year olds voted in 2008. Further, while the 64 percent of voting-age citizens who voted in 2008 was higher than in 2000 and 1996, it was not the highest ever. The rate was similar in 2004 and throughout the 1980s. The only major difference was the voting rate for black people, which was the highest ever, according to the report.

When you consider that black people largely have to contend with double-digit unemployment, poorer health outcomes and weaker public schools in urban centers, it’s hard to have faith in democracy and the argument that many African Americans put their lives on the line to give black people the right to vote. Many young people are going to start to wonder, for what?

But the report is clear that not playing the game isn’t the answer, either. The groups that vote in larger numbers are the ones getting the most attention by legislators and policymakers, including:

  • Adults with the most education and the highest incomes, who were the most likely to vote. Those earning more than $100,000, 90 percent of whom voted, compared to 51 percent of those earning less than $20,000 did.
  • 55- to 74-year-olds, three-quarters of whom voted in the most recent presidential election, compared to less than half of 18- to 24-year-olds.
  • Adults with advanced degrees, who were twice as likely as high school dropouts to vote (83 versus 39 percent).

The authors contend higher student voter turnout rates would improve high school graduation rates and create opportunities for students to participate in civic activities in their communities as well as in school. The report recommends that school systems make voter registration a requirement for graduation, for students who are eligible to vote.

The report also calls for a National Commission on Civic Engagement to seek solutions to the low levels of voting, volunteering and engagement and for the expansion of National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) in civics to the states so that state policymakers get a better picture of the civics knowledge of the state’s students.

The report supports such reforms as voting-by-mail, early voting and weekend voting, which many states—often the result of Republican initiatives—have taken steps to amend or rescind, as well as find ways to impose new restrictions on voter registration efforts.

 The report is available here.

Knowledge is power and knowing enough to vote, apparently, pays off, too.

Jackie Jones, a veteran journalist and journalism educator, is director of Jones Coaching LLC, a career transformation firm.

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