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In Class, Suddenly the Electoral College Counts

By Valerie Strauss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 2, 2004; Page A10

One by one, students in Eileen Sheehy's government class walked to her desk, armed with projections of how each state would vote in today's presidential election. She typed her students' data into a computer, and the high school seniors watched in wonder as different electoral college scenarios appeared on an interactive map.

"They'd say things like, 'Wow, Ohio really matters,' and, 'No wonder [the candidates] spent so much time in Iowa. Now we get it,' " said Sheehy, a teacher at Billings West High School in Montana.

How the Electoral College Works

Using the Internet, interactive games, mock elections and other educational tools, Sheehy's students are studying a subject considered essential to an educated citizenry but one that has been glossed over until recent years: the electoral college.

With the contested 2000 presidential election a fresh memory -- and the race between President Bush and Sen. John F. Kerry too close to call -- the electoral college has become a hot topic in many U.S. government classes. Teachers from Seattle to Miami say they are spending more time on it than ever, drawing upon current events and a wealth of new resources to update lesson plans.

"It's never been interesting this way before," Sheehy said.

In learning that adults do not elect a U.S. president by popular vote, unlike the way youths vote for student council president, students interviewed in several states say the electoral process has turned out to be more interesting -- and surprising -- than they had imagined.

"From the time I was small, I learned that every vote counted, that we actually chose the president directly," said Philip Dale, 13, who is studying the electoral college in his eighth-grade civics class at Rachel Carson Middle School in Herndon.

"They build up your patriotism by saying we can elect whoever we want, and then you find out later it doesn't work that way," he said. "I think it's wrong to tell kids it's one person, one vote. It's a huge lie."

In the electoral college, each state gets one elector for each of its U.S. representatives and senators. The District gets three electors. It takes 270 electoral votes to win.

The emphasis on the electoral college in many classrooms comes against a backdrop of concern about the state of civics education. Studies have shown that a minority of Americans know much about how the electoral process works.

The Education Commission of the States, a nonpartisan organization based in Denver, released survey results last year showing that although 41 states had laws requiring students to learn about government, civics or citizenship, just five -- Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, New Mexico and New York -- had a high school exit exam on civics or related topics.

The survey found that 28 states had no standardized tests on social studies, and 37 failed to factor government or social studies into school accountability ratings.

Even with American political debate at a fevered pitch this year, some teachers have little time to devote to it because they are required to emphasize basic reading and math to prepare students for standardized tests, said Mary E. Haas, an education professor at West Virginia University.

But teachers such as Sheehy say they are doing as much as they can to bring the electoral college into classrooms. Lesson plans have been beefed up, with the help of nonprofit organizations that promote civics education. Sheehy said she has changed her approach to the subject, giving more attention to "what if" scenarios that, before 2000, seemed like a useless exercise.

"I used to breeze past the possibility that the electoral college would fail to select a president and really had only the fuzziest idea of what would happen if the election ended up in the House" of Representatives, she said. "We all learned a lot in those anxious weeks after the 2000 election, and I no longer say, 'That isn't going to happen.' "

In a mock election at St. Paul's School in Brooklandville, Baltimore County, many of those "what ifs" actually played out; there was a challenge, for example, over one student's eligibility to vote because his ballot could have changed the outcome. The school's Honor Council, or "Supreme Court," had to intervene.

At Georgetown Day School in the District, math teacher Paul Nass got involved with eighth-grade history classes to use math to explain the rationale for the electoral college, review past election results and play with potential 2004 scenarios.

In Miami, Andrea Macko, a teacher at Devon Aire Elementary School, said she is working harder this year to make sure her fifth-graders understand the electoral college system, which could only be changed by amending the Constitution. To make sure they grasp it, she conducts a mock election that does not choose a winner solely by popular vote.

It can be a tricky business for teachers to decide when students are ready to study the electoral college. Jeff Passe, president-elect of the National Council for the Social Studies and a professor at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, said it is not appropriate to introduce the subject before fourth or fifth grade.

"In the earlier grades, the kids aren't going to get it, and they don't really need to get it," Passe said. "They just need to understand the purpose of elections and the issues, rather than the nuts and bolts."

Caitlin Edwards, 13, said she first learned about the electoral college in fifth grade but really understood it only this year because she is older and because her eighth-grade teacher, Carla Garfield at Rachel Carson, did not stick to a boring textbook. The teacher used Web sites and class discussions to flesh out the subject.

Ben Fletcher, 13, another of Garfield's students, said learning about the electoral college "made me mad" because he believes that every vote should count equally. His classmate, Tyler Barfield, 14, said the college is "more fair" because without it the most populous states would have too much voting power.

Garfield said she tells students that if they understand the electoral college, they will be ahead of many adults.

Just ask the school's principal, August Frattali. "I'm still trying to learn it," he said, laughing.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company


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