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Željko Zidarić
28th-May-2012, 02:47 AM
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CIRCLE Working Paper #72
The Classroom-Kitchen Table Connection: The Effects of Political Discussion on Youth Knowledge and Efficacy

Dr. Tim Vercellotti and Dr. Elizabeth C. Matto
* lvercellotti@wnec.edu
**ematto@rci.rutgers.edu


Executive Summary

Research tells us that systematically incorporating news media into school curricula improves standardized reading and math scores. But there is little research to tell us whether these efforts are effective in increasing students’ media use, political knowledge or their sense of being able to understand and influence politics (known as internal political efficacy) – all key elements of civic engagement. We address this gap in the literature with an experiment involving 361 students in four high schools in New Jersey. After conducting a baseline survey measuring media use, political knowledge, and political efficacy among students, we randomly assigned the students' social studies classes to one of three conditions: a treatment group assigned to read and discuss articles about politics in a newsweekly magazine in class for eight weeks; a treatment group in which students were assigned to read and discuss the same articles at home with their parents, with the students subsequently also discussing the articles in the classroom; and a control group that did not receive the magazine and did not engage in discussion. We followed up with surveys of the students at the end of the eight-week intervention, and then six weeks later to measure for longer-term effects of the experiment. We also conducted telephone surveys with parents of 152 students during the experiment in order to measure the relationship between parent and student levels of media use, political knowledge and political efficacy.


We found that:

The combination of reading the articles and discussing them at home and school was related to increased information-seeking and political knowledge among students, but only for those who were not in advanced placement or honors classes.
The combination of reading and discussion at home and at school also was related to an increase in students’ internal political efficacy, while the same was not true for the group that discussed the articles only in class and the control group that received no exposure to the magazines.


The effects also varied by parent characteristics. Drawing from the sub-sample of 152 pairs of students and parents, we found that:

Students who were assigned to discuss the articles at home with their parents, and who had parents who scored low on measures of political knowledge and efficacy, were most likely to have increased scores on both of those dimensions at the end of the experiment. This was true only for students who were not in advanced placement or honors classes.


Taken together, the results indicate that exposing students to news coverage about politics, and having those students discuss what they read with their parents as well as in class, may make students more knowledgeable and efficacious. The effects vary, however, by whether students are in advanced placement or honors classes. The effects also vary based on parents‘ levels of political knowledge and efficacy. We believe that our results could provide guidance to practitioners looking for ways to enlist potentially powerful allies – parents – in reinforcing what happens in the classroom by extending political discussions to the home as well.


Introduction

According to The Civic Mission of Schools (CMS), one of the principal goals of civic education should be to help students develop the ability to “obtain information, think critically, and enter into dialogue among others with different perspectives” (2003, 4). Such an education ought to produce students who are “confident in their ability to make a difference, and ready to contribute personally to civic and political action” (CMS 2003, 10).

For most citizens, consumption of news media is the primary mode through which they acquire political information. News consumption is also a behavior that is frequently associated with political discussion, even among young people (Eveland, Hayes, Shah & Kwak, 2005; Garramone & Atkin, 1986; McDevitt & Chaffee, 1998, 2000; Wyatt, Kim & Katz, 2000).

Recent generations of young people have been reaching adulthood without developing news consumption habits (Keeter, Zukin, Andolina & Jenkins, 2002; Lopez et al., 2006; Marcelo, 2007; Mindich, 2005; Patterson, 2007; Pew Center for the People and the Press, 2004). Given the demonstrated link between news consumption and political knowledge and civic engagement (Conway, Wyckoff, Feldbaum, & Ahern, 1981; Garramone & Atkin, 1986; Lopez et al., 2006), this lag in news consumption among youths is worrisome.

In an effort to improve the outcome of civic education for young people, we conducted a quasi-experimental research project that explored whether exposing students to news coverage in high school, and requiring a subset of those students to discuss the news coverage at home with their parents, influenced subsequent news consumption, political knowledge and students’ sense of having the skills necessary to participate in politics (i.e. their sense of internal political efficacy). We also examined the longer-term effects of exposing students to news coverage in school and at home on students’ news consumption, knowledge and efficacy.

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