“When the kids post their letter online, they tag it to show what category it goes into,” said Antero Garcia, an assistant professor of education at Stanford GSE and lead author of the study. “But it’s an open field—the kids can write any tag they want.” A student who writes a letter about preventing cruelty to animals, for instance, could tag it animal rights, animal abuse, animal testing or something else. “One might just say animals. Or animal lives matter. Or there could be a typo, so it says aminals.”
The research team had the unenviable task of sorting through the thousands of letters and streamlining the categories, then grouping the letters appropriately. Next, they gathered statistical data for the schools and communities where the student letter-writers lived.
“We don’t know any data about the individual students, like race or ethnicity or gender, but we know the school site where every letter was written,” Garcia said. “From there we could look at national data to figure out socioeconomic status and some electoral information, including whether the precinct went for Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump in 2016.”
Linking topics to school demographics
There was no single topic that overshadowed all others, the researchers found, though some were more prevalent that others.
Immigration was high on the list: Nearly 10 percent of students tagged their letter with a term in this category (including border patrol, deportation, and others). Gun violence was another leading topic.
“And this was before the Parkland shooting, when you would imagine that high school students began to get very involved in this issue,” said Levinson. “But in 2016, it was already one of the top concerns.”
The researchers identified a number of connections between letter topics and school demographics. First, the topics of immigration, race, discrimination, police and violence were prevalent among letter writers overall but significantly more likely to be written about in letters from schools that serve a majority of both students of color and lower-income students (where more than half receive free or reduced-cost lunch).
The cost of college was also a prevalent issue in the letters overall, but kids from more affluent schools serving predominantly white students were more likely to write about it, the researchers found.
“We can’t really say why that’s the case, but one of our theories is that those students are being positioned more strongly to attend college, so it’s more at the forefront of their minds,” said Levinson. “It’s possible that students from schools serving predominantly lower-income students or students of color have other issues that are more at the forefront of their minds—it’s not that they’re not worried about college costs or not thinking about going to college, but maybe they’re more worried about other issues that are prevalent in their communities.”
Letters categorized under guns (including those tagged gun control and second amendment) and women’s/gender issues (including feminism and gender wage gap) were also more prevalent among more affluent schools with majority white students.