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What Do Social Studies Teachers REALLY Think?

Most high school social studies teachers believe it's important to teach students to "respect and appreciate their country," but also to "know its shortcomings," according to a new study based on a national survey.

The report from the American Enterprise Institute also finds that public school teachers polled generally lack confidence that their students are learning what they're supposed to, and a majority believe that social studies is not treated as "an absolutely essential subject area."

The study is based on a national, randomized survey of 866 social studies teachers in public schools, and an oversampling of 245 in Catholic and private schools, as well as focus groups with teachers.

"America's high school social studies teachers cherish their nation and make it a point to convey this sentiment to their students—especially those who are new to the country," the report concludes. "Their attitude is not one of simplistic adulation," however. "As teachers of history, they know the nation has not always lived up to its values, and they want their students to know this, too."

Here are some quick highlights of the responses from public school educators:

• 83 percent believe the United States is "a unique country that stands for something special in the world (while 11 percent see it as "just another country" that is no better or worse than others);

• 82 percent say it's important for high school students to "respect and appreciate their country but know its shortcomings;"

• 45 percent say their school district treats social studies as an "absolutely essential subject;"

• 77 percent say memorizing facts and dates "still has an important place" in the curriculum; and

• 78 percent say social studies should be part of every state's set of standards and testing system.

Meanwhile, out of a list of 12 items, social studies teachers were most likely to say it's essential for high school students to be taught to "identify the protections guaranteed by the Bill of Rights." Also, when asked to assess five priorities high schools may have around teaching citizenship, knowing facts (such as the location of the 50 states) or dates (such as the attack on Pearl Harbor) was rated the lowest.

In general, the report found that the attitudes of public and private school teachers were similar with regard to what it means to be an American and what students should learn about citizenship. But they differ significantly in their day-to-day experiences. For example, two-thirds of private school teachers say social studies is an absolutely essential subject in their school (compared with 45 percent for public school teachers). Also, private school teachers are almost twice as likely to report having a great deal of control over what topics they choose to cover and the pace at which they move through the curriculum.

A concern that seemed to serve as one underpinning for the report was whether some social studies teachers might have an anti-American agenda.

In a foreword from four AEI experts (including Rick Hess, who writes the
Rick Hess Straight Up blog for EdWeek), they write: "Despite all of the concerns about anti-American sentiment in schools of education, just 1 percent of teachers want students to learn 'that the U.S. is a fundamentally flawed country.' This sounds, to our ears, like a near pitch-perfect rendition of what parents, voters, and taxpayers would hope for—schools where students learn that America is exceptional even as they learn about its failures."

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