Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The Results: Civic Knowledge

I administered my survey to a sample of 20 students currently enrolled at Capital University. I administered the survey on two separate dates, November 1st and November 5th, 2008, each time to a class taught by Dr. Mike Yosha. Capital University has undergraduate programs geared towards both traditional undergraduates and working adults, and the classes that I surveyed had both traditional and non-traditional students. The class on the 1st was a 100 level class on globalization, and the class on the 5th was a 100 level professional studies course; there were ten students in each course. While I did not ask the participants for their exact age, I did ask them to give their age range, and the most common answer was 39-48. Women made up the bulk of participants and they outnumbered their male counterparts 12 to 8.
When I set out on this project I had 3 specific questions in mind, and the answers to the first two were fairly surprising given the research I reviewed in preparation for the survey. First, I was unable to demonstrate any statistical difference between policy preferences of the informed and uninformed participants. Second, I was unable to demonstrate any significant correlation between the globalization scores of the informed and uninformed

When it came to raw scores on the civics test, results were actually fairly close to what the research suggested. Keeter and Carprini’s research suggested that approximately half the respondents would fall into the category of “uninformed” and my survey results had a median score of 7 (out of a possible 14) and about half the participants scored less than 50% on the civics test, placing them firmly in the category of people who do not know much about what government ‘is’ or ‘does’.

Looking at some specific questions outlines just how little some participants knew about government. For example, question 31 asked:

Which of these statements most accurately describes the official power that a president wields over the economy?
a. Per Article II of the Constitution, Presidents are responsible for creating jobs and keeping interest rates and taxes low.
b. Presidents use executive orders to set prices of public goods such as electricity and oil.
c. Presidents have the power to appoint a treasury secretary and the Fed chair (if the Fed chair happens to be up for reappointment), beyond that they have little direct control over the economy.
d. The President sets interest rates and adjust the value of the dollar against a basket of other currencies.

Seven out of twenty (35%)of the respondents did not answer this question correctly. Two provided no answer, one respondent answered ‘d’ and two respondents answered ‘a’ and two answered ‘b’. This is a good time to note that each respondent was a current student at a University with a selective admissions policy.
While looking at some of the individual scores was almost frightening, a funny thing happened when all the scores were added together; the participants became almost perfectly informed. With just three exceptions, the most common answer to every question was the right answer. For example, on question 31, although 7 people got it wrong, the group overwhelmingly chose the right answer. This data suggests that, although individuals may be incorrect in answering specific questions, in aggregate the American public may be very well informed.

Of the three exceptional questions, where the majority chose the wrong answer, 2 concerned the names of people in key government positions and one question concerned knowledge of the U.S. Constitution. Question 7 asked, “Who is the current Secretary of Defense?” While 5 respondents correctly identified Secretary Robert Gates, 6 respondents identified General David Petraeus, the current head of CENTCOM, as the defense secretary. While the selection of Petraeus as SECDEF does belie a lack of knowledge about who’s who in the cabinet, it might also reflect the fact that the general has become a prominent media figure over the last year, whereas secretary Gates has maintained a somewhat lower profile than his predecessor, Donald Rumsfeld. On a related note, Rumsfeld, whose daily give and take with Pentagon reporters were fodder for news broadcasts, was chosen by the same number of participants as Secretary Gates. Another thought is that General Petraeus is often seen in photographs and video clips wearing his U.S. Army uniform, whereas Gates is generally seen wearing the same dark suit that every congressman, senator, cabinet secretary and lawyer wears, so perhaps respondents visually connect Petraeus to the military and assume that must means he is SECDEF. With this information in mind, it might be interesting to ask questions like this in future using picture of choices rather than simple text. This question saw a fairly even distribution of correct answers between informed quartiles. 40% of participants in the top quartile answer the question correctly, 20% in the second quartile, 40% in the third quartile and 20% in the forth quartile.

Question 8 is another example of the majority choosing the wrong answer and maybe also be an example of a high publicity figure being chosen over a less well-known public figure. Question 8 read, “Who is the current senate minority leader?” The correct answer, Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell, was the choice of just 4 participants. The most common answer was Nancy Pelosi, who is actually the Speaker of the House. Like with Gates versus Rumsfeld and Petraeus, Pelosi is a higher profile figure than Mitch McConnell. Pelosi’s higher profile is due to the nature of the Speaker of the House, a position that comes with both more power and a higher profile than any given position in the senate. It must be noted that Pelosi is not only a member of the wrong house, but also of the wrong party to be minority leader. This indicates that, although participants may have recognized Pelosi’s name, they apparently did not know which house she served in nor did they apparently know which party had minority status in the either the house or senate. The top quartile of informed participants, those who scored more than 10 correct, were most likely to get the answer correct, with 3 out of 5 correctly identifying McConnell. Scores dropped off significantly in the second quartile, with only 20% selecting the correct answer. No participants in the bottom half (scoring less than 50% on the civics quiz) selected the correct answer to question 8.

The final question where the majority got the answer wrong concerned the U.S. Constitution, and seems to revel some confusion about the difference between a Constitutional Article and a Constitutional Amendment. Question 32 read, “Article I of the Constitution deals with?” Just three people selected the correct answer, which was answer b, congress. The majority clearly confused Article I with the first amendment, because 10 people selected answer c, “The right freedom of religion and speech,” as the correct answer. Like question 8, the correct answers to question 32 were heavily concentrated in the upper quartile. 2 out of 3 correct answers came from those in the top quartile, whereas one correct answer came from a participant in the third quartile. There were no correct answers in either the second or fourth quartiles.

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