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Inside Student Government: The Variable Quality of High School Student Councils

by Daniel McFarland & Carlos E. Starmanns - 2009

Background/Context: Student governments are the first direct experience that youth have of representative government. However, very little research has been done on student councils in spite of their ubiquity in American high schools and consistent references to their positive effects on the political socialization of youth.

Purpose/Objective/Research Question/Focus of Study: This article studies how student councils are variably organized across the nation to determine how and why better or worse quality experiences of representative government are being had by youth just before they enter adulthood and have the opportunity to be engaged in the nation’s political system.

Research Design: The authors conducted interviews with student council sponsors, collected a nationally representative sample of student council constitutions, and then looked at the variance in student powers and faculty controls over council endeavors.

Conclusions/Recommendations: The study finds that student councils are variably organized by school charters and by income levels and race of student populations. Elite public schools afford councils unprecedented powers and low faculty oversight, whereas impoverished schools and those with disadvantaged minorities tend to lack councils or merely have ones that perform social functions. By contrast, private religious schools have the most active councils engaged in a wide range of activities, but their decisions and memberships are constrained by a great deal of faculty oversight. Such variation in representative government has implications for political socialization and the types of citizens being developed in the United States.

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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 111 Number 1, 2009, p. 27-54
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 15173, Date Accessed: 9/17/2021 9:28:05 AM

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About the Author
  • Daniel McFarland
    Stanford University
    E-mail Author
    DANIEL A. MCFARLAND is an associate professor of education and (by courtesy) sociology at Stanford University. He recently published an article with Jack Thomas in the American Sociological Review on the effects of extracurricular participation on the political socialization of youth (“Bowling Young”). He is currently engaged in several research projects concerning the social network dynamics of youth and has recently begun a new project on the changing form and content of university research.
  • Carlos Starmanns
    Stanford University
    CARLOS STARMANNS is a doctoral student in political philosophy and civic education at Stanford University. His interests are in the intersection of liberal political philosophy and educational theory. He focuses especially on the political philosophy of John Rawls.
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