The Responsibilty of Teaching Students to Become “Engaged Capable Voters”and the Slippery Slope

Why am I writing about elections and polling?

The Campaign for Fiscal Equity (CFE) decision requires New York State to provide a “sound basic education,” and, goes on to define the term;

… sound basic education should consist of skills necessary to enable children to eventually function productively as civic participants capable of voting and serving on a jury. Productive citizenship means more than just being qualified to vote or serve as a juror, but to do so capably and knowledgeably. It connotes civic engagement. An engaged, capable voter needs the intellectual tools to evaluate complex issues, such as campaign finance reform, tax policy, and global warming, to name only a few. Ballot propositions in New York City, … can require a close reading and a familiarity with the structure of local government

Are we working towards enabling our students to become “engaged, capable voters” and provide them with the “intellectual tools to evaluate complex issues?”

If we stay within the confines of required courses and examination preparation, the answer isprobably not. We should set aside time  to use the presidential election process as a teaching tool.

The nation is currently engaged in the candidate selection process, a primary process, the process is complex, lengthy, and, influenced by polling: who is “winning?” who is “losing?” with little explanation of the mechanics of polling.

We’re a week away (February 3rd) from the Iowa caucus, the first chance for voters to cast a ballot, followed by the New Hampshire primary a week later (February 11th), the Nevada, (February 22), South Carolina (February 29) and Super Tuesday primaries, fourteen primaries on March 3rd, including two of the most delegate rich states, California and Texas.  (New York State is April 28th).

What are the pros and cons of the current selection process?  Weighing “everyone gets to cast a ballot for the candidate of their choice” versus “losers are angry and don’t participate in the general election.”

A Siena/NY Times poll has Sanders leading, the Des Moines Register endorsed Warren, an Emerson College poll had Biden leading: Why are the polls bouncing around? What does that tiny plus/minus numbers at the bottom of the poll numbers mean?

On the cusp of Clinton-Trump election I wrote:

With a week to go in the race to the White House the polls seem to be bouncing all over the place. Nate Silver at the fivethirtyeight blog predicting a narrowing but substantial Hillary lead,  The RealClearPolitics blog predicts a closer race with 149 electoral votes up for grabs.

Pollsters haven’t been doing too well this year – pollsters predicted a “yes” vote in the Brixet vote, the no’s won, in the Columbia FARC plebiscite, once again, the pollster predict “yes, the vote came out “no.”

A poll is a photograph in time of a representative cohort of voters; the pollster identifies a “stratified, random sample” of expected voters. Anyone can purchase voting data, PrimeNY  is a company that sells voting data, and, you’d be amazed at the specificity of the data in the public space. The sample must mirror the voter pool, by gender, by ethnicity, by age, by education, etc., once the pool is established how do you contact voters: land line, cell phone, online?  How many younger voters have landlines?  How many younger voters live on their Apple watch?  Do you glance at your phone and if you don’t know the number let it go to voice mail?

At the bottom of the polling data you should find the error of measurement,  plus/minus signs and a number; the error of measurement. If the error of measurement, for instance,  is +/- 4% it means that a 52-48% lead is actually a statistical tie, a term you rarely hear from the commentators.

I owe the following discussion to Howard Wainer, one of our leading experts on statistics,

Pollsters identify a pool, a subset that reflects the larger population to be polled. We used to call the subset a stratified, random sample, a microcosm of the total population to be polled. The issue is the non-response rate which is gigantic. In a world of cell phones, potential responders can easily choose whether or not to answer a call. The non-response rate erodes the accuracy of the poll.

You get the idea — the point of polls is to use the outcome of polls to predict the outcome we care about. But if polls are unreliable we must find more reliable (but still efficacious) predictors. Perhaps tweets help, but there are other options. In the future, if people continue to not answer phones, these alternative approaches will become the norm.

Traditional polling is increasingly shaky, you glance at your phone, if you can’t identify the number you ignore it, if it is an 800 or an 888 number you ignore it. Pollsters are dependent on responses, who answers the phone?  Older voters with more time? Who doesn’t answer the phone? Have you programmed your phone to only accept specific numbers?  If non-responses are gigantic traditional telephone-based polling is both inaccurate, and, not the best way to predict outcomes.

Yes, Twitter or Nielson or Facebook may provide better ways of predicting outcomes.

Wainer concluded his remarks,

Although it is well known that being a statistician means never having to say you’re certain (nothing in life is ever better than 3 to 1), I feel safe in betting the farm on Hillary (regardless of the release of emails). And also a Democratic Senate.

No matter the expertise, statistics is an imperfect science.

I was teaching a Sociology class and decided to have the class construct and administer a survey of student attitudes, and, taught lessons on statistics. Every survey form asked for gender, race and a few other identifying data and we created a pool, a “stratified, random sample” of poll participants.

We invited the principal to the class and a few students presented the results of the survey. The principal, not exactly happy, asked how did they know that the survey reflected the attitudes of the entire school; the student survey leaders taught the principal a lesson in statistics.

The primaries select delegates to the Democratic National Convention held in mid July; the delegates will select the candidate. If no candidate has a majority by July the candidates will continue to cast ballots until a candidate emerges.  The 1924 Democratic National Convention, held at the Madison Square Garden in New York City from June 24 to July 9, was the longest continuously running convention in United States political history. It took a record 103 ballots to nominate a presidential candidate.

“Brokered conventions,” meaning conventions at which no candidate has a majority on the first ballot are unusual, the last was in 1952. With three candidates currently in a virtual tie (Sanders, Warren and Biden) and Buttigieg and Klobuchar close behind and Bloomberg spending tens of millions, one never knows.  After the first ballot delegates are free to cast ballots for any candidate.

This would be a wonderful term to be teaching American History. New York State requires a course entitled Participation in Government, what a term to teach it!

Teachers should steer clear of “taking sides,” kids would ask me, “Who are you voting for?”

I would explain my role is to make them knowledgeable voters; my candidate preference was not relevant.

On Teacher Lobby Day, held in March, the teacher union would bus hundreds of teachers to Albany to lobby for the issue of the moment. I would bring along a group of my students who had researched an issue that they selected, maybe school funding, and make a presentation to the legislators. The kids dressed in their finest, they were nervous, we practiced, and the legislators loved it. A few of them ended up with internships in the local offices of the legislators.

Nationwide voter turnout among younger voters was steadily dropping and surged in 2018.

In 1972, the first year 18- to 20-year-olds were allowed to vote, 55 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds cast ballots. Only 43 percent of that age group voted in 2016 and just 16 percent turned out to vote in 2014.

The Census found that 36 percent of citizens ages 18-29 reported voting in last year’s midterm elections, jumping 16 percentage points since 2014 … and easily surpassing any midterm election since the 1980s.

I surmise that climate change, school shootings and enhanced role of social media engaged more younger voters.

Teaching about elections can be a slippery slope, principals and parents can accuse you of trying to “brainwash,” to unduly influence students. The First Amendment does not allow for teachers to have free rein on speech within the classroom. The courts have delineated “protected” and “unprotected” speech. I blogged about this topic in detail a number of years ago (Read here)

I believe as teachers we have a moral and ethical responsibility to pass along the torch of democracy to each generation we teach. A responsibility too often frowned on by the “powers” trying to maintain their position and authority.

One of the greatest teachers of all time, Socrates, was “brought up on charges” in Athens for corrupting the youth by teaching them to question authority (and sentenced to death).

He needed a union

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