Kids Voting USA: From Classroom to Dinner Table to the Polls

Syd Golston

Consider these statistics. More than 80 percent of young adults age 18 to 24 have earned their driver's license. However, only about 20 percent voted in the 1994 elections. This was also the age group most conspicuously missing in the last presidential election.
Kids Voting USA of Tempe, Arizona, is a non-profit organization that promotes student awareness of the importance of voting through a civic education program that bonds present and future generations of citizens. In this grassroots effort, students-from kindergartners through high school seniors-go to official polling precincts on election day to cast their own ballots alongside the adults in their lives. (Parents need not accompany high school students, although they often do.) Their votes-to be tallied and reported extensively in newspapers and on television-are the culminating experience of many hours of classroom preparation.

Kids Voting has projects in 40 states, and some five million students and 200,000 teachers will participate in this fall's election. On Election Day, 100,000 volunteers will make sure that the student vote is gathered, tallied, and publicized in one of the largest single-day volunteer efforts in the United States. The program is rooted in both the community and the schools, and therein lies the key to its effectiveness.

Modeling Democracy
The Kids Voting USA Curriculum models democratic practice at the classroom level through cooperative learning structures, group problem-solving, and active student-centered experiences. Lessons are concept-anchored and affect-based, high in content and skills development, and reflective of research on multiple intelligences.
Typical lessons for younger children include role plays, craft activities and classroom elections. In "The Voting Chain," kindergarten students voting with paper links see how each link makes up part of the decision and why each person can vote just once.

Secondary student activities include formal debates and the construct of policy options. One lesson, "The 1965 Alabama Literacy Test," may help students grasp the frustration of its real victims as they take (and flunk) this tricky exam meant to disenfranchise African-Americans. (This lesson is included in the Teaching Ideas section of this issue of Social Education, p. 340) High school lessons are indexed to the national civics standards and contain performance assessment suggestions.

The Kids Voting curriculum emphasizes information gathering (especially from news media) in the classroom, with structured extension to home discussion of political issues. Most teachers in the program plan six to twelve hours of instruction-taken from binders of lesson plans and resource materials-in the fall prior to an election. A growing number of instructors use the curriculum throughout the school year, whether or not there is an election in progress.

Kids Voting Schools also receive instructional materials on a regular basis. The anniversary of the first non-racial democratic elections in South Africa was observed with multi-disciplinary activities for all grade levels that included correspondence with South African schools. The 75th anniversary of the 19th Amendment was celebrated with women's suffrage materials.

Political polling is another part of the curriculum. The Kids Voting USA 1996 National Poll involved 1,400 high school students and their parents in 25 states. The poll results-announced at a press conference in New Hampshire one week before its presidential primary-were carried on CNN and published in many newspapers. Dr. Frank Newport of the Gallup Organization and Dr. Bruce Merrill of Arizona State University advised Kids Voting on polling lessons.

Toward Active Citizens
There is evidence that the Kids Voting program is an effective pedagogical tool, as well as a benefit to the community. Stanford University research has indicated that Kids Voting students read newspapers, follow politics on television, and talk to their parents about candidates and issues more than do other students, and they continue these behaviors over time.1 These outcomes emerge across socio-economic and gender categories, according to additional research at the University of Wisconsin.2
Professor Steven H. Chaffee of Stanford held little hope for such results when he began his research. He had studied civic education programs before. His research found, however, that students who participated in Kids Voting developed knowledge and habits of mind that led them to strong interest in events in Washington, D.C; they knew and cared a lot about political events; they became active and attentive citizens; and they learned skills that were unlikely to be reversed."3

Some educators may recognize the goals and methods of the Kids Voting USA Curriculum in the movement toward character education. Thomas Lickona cites schools' historic goals as "to help people become smart, and to help them become good," and he adds: "Schools must help children understand the core values, adopt or commit to them, and then act upon them in their own lives.4 Kids Voting seeks to provide the tools to do all three. n

1Steven H. Chaffee, Youngme Moon and Michael McDevitt, "Stimulation of Communication: Reconceptualizing the Study of Political Socialization" (Stanford University, 1995). Paper presented at the conference of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication, March 1995.

2Jack M. McLeod, Edward M. Horowitz and William P. Eveland, Jr., "Report: Learning to Live in a Democracy: The Interdependence of Family, Schools and Media" (Mass Communications Research Center, University of Wisconsin at Madison, 1995). Paper presented at the conference of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication, Washington, DC, August 1995.

3For the research study on which these conclusions were based, see note 1.

4Thomas Lickona, "The Return of Character Education," Educational Leadership (March 1995): 6-11.

Syd Golston is Supervisor of Education at Kids Voting USA, 398 South Mill Ave., Tempe, AZ 85281; and a member of the Board of Directors of National Council for the Social Studies.