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March 9, 2005

student government

Research by Daniel McFarland and Carlos Starmanns finds that there's a great variation in the quality of high school student governments. Some have elaborate and evolving constitutions that establish significant powers for students over budgets and discipline. Others are merely clubs whose members are chosen in popularity contests. This is an important issue, because research since the 1960s has consistently found that students are more committed to democracy and have better skills if their schools offer student "voice."

In general, the wealthier the school's population, the more power is given to its student government. However ...

Alternative schools—charter, magnet or private—seem to offer opportunities for meaningful political participation greater than even the wealthiest public schools. Student councils typically consist of 20 to 40 officers, regardless of school size, so these generally smaller schools enable a greater percentage of students to hold office. And because alternative schools tend to have a clear mission, their constitutions try to uphold school values—by encouraging the election of moral exemplars, for example. However, alternative schools also tend to give faculty tighter control over students (including reins on elections), leading McFarland and Starmanns to wonder whether such schools raise citizens who are not used to thinking for themselves.

I'm interested in whether it's the poverty of neighborhoods or low per-pupil spending that seems, all else being equal, to predict a weak or non-existent student government. We at CIRCLE plan to do some simple statistical analysis to evaluate whether the level of per-capita school spending correlates with students' civic engagement, controlling for other factors. If schools without adequate funds tend to sacrifice student government, that would be one of several ways in which low funding could hamper civic education.

March 9, 2005 2:03 PM | category: advocating civic education | Comments


Another interesting correlation that you might consider is how the ethnic composition of a community bears on the quality of student government in the schools. While doing some basic qualitative research in metro-Boston, I found that predominantly white/protestant communities were more likely to have dogmatic top-down governance while communities with high numbers of ethnically diverse populations (e.g. Italian-Catholic, Jewish, Asian-American) were more likely to have strong student government programs. I'm not sure how this correlation translates to poorer communities, so, for example, whether areas with strong Latino presence have more or less democratically governed schools than African-American areas or rural white areas. Nevertheless, it might be a variable worth exploring.

March 9, 2005 4:25 PM | Comments (1) | posted by Eitan D. Hersh

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