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High Schools, Civics, and Citizenship: What Social Studies Teachers Think and Do

Remarkably little has been written about the state of citizenship education in our schools. One has to go back to the 1998 Public Agenda study "A Lot To Be Thankful For" to find a serious attempt to examine what parents think public schools should teach children about citizenship. The annual Phi Delta Kappan/Gallup poll on schooling has not asked questions about citizenship since 2000. When these questions were last addressed, respondents chose "prepar[ing] people to become responsible citizens" as the least important purpose of schooling from among those offered. And it's brutally hard to find much on what teachers think about the state of citizenship education.

Given those challenges, pollsters/analysts Steve Farkas and Ann Duffett have delivered an invaluable service in their new study "High Schools, Civics, and Citizenship: What Social Studies Teachers Think and Do," released today (Full disclosure: The study was commissioned and published by my shop at AEI). Steve and Ann explore what our schools are teaching today about citizenship by interviewing and surveying those teachers most directly charged with educating and shaping America's new citizens--high school teachers of history and social studies in both public and private schools.

The findings struck me as both surprising and predictable, at times reassuring but also unsettling. While teachers' priorities and values largely reflect those of the general public, their efforts to convey that knowledge to students are falling short of their own expectations.

In marked contrast to their private counterparts, public school teachers believe that social studies is losing ground to other subject areas and that civics in particular is being neglected by their schools. Teachers appear mixed, with some notable exceptions, about what the precise content of a proper civic education should be. They emphasize notions of tolerance and rights, but are inclined to give less attention to history, facts, and key constitutional concepts such as the separation of powers.

First, the good news: I found the results quite promising when it comes to public values and how teachers view America. Teachers share what most Americans would likely regard as a vision of responsible citizenship--with 83% of the teachers surveyed seeing the U.S. as a unique country that stands for something special in the world. At the same time, 82% of survey respondents say students should be taught to "respect and appreciate their country but know its shortcomings." For all of the concerns about anti-American sentiment in schools of education, just 1% of teachers want students to learn "that the U.S. is a fundamentally flawed country." This sounds, to our ears, pretty much like a 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.

Teachers working with immigrants and English Language Learners (ELL) voice a particular need to teach their students to appreciate America and its culture. Fully 82% of teachers believe it is especially important to teach foreign-born students to value the U.S. and the meaning of citizenship, and 89% of teachers working with ELL students say the same.

Second, when asked what content, skills, or knowledge are most important, teachers rank the guarantees of the Bill of Rights at the top, whereas concepts like federalism and the separation of powers and key periods like the American Founding fare less well. It appears that students are taught about those things that embody a certain spirit of America, but not about how that spirit is translated into actual governance. Similarly, only 50% of teachers thought it essential for students to know "economic principles like supply and demand" and just 36% thought it essential that they know facts and dates (like the location of the 50 states or the date of Pearl Harbor). This strikes us as a case of teachers setting a remarkably low bar for what they expect their students to be able to learn.

Third, these teachers are uniquely well-positioned to report on what students are and are not learning when it comes to citizenship. On that score, things are disconcerting. When asked whether they are "very confident" that students have mastered important content and skills, only 24% of teachers indicate that their students can identify the protections in the Bill of Rights when they graduate high school, 15% think that their students understand concepts such as federalism and the separation of powers, and 11% believe their pupils understand the basic precepts of the free market.

Fourth, private schools may actually be better at fostering citizenship and civic virtues. For all the popular assertions that private schooling cannot serve public purposes, the data suggest that public and private educators value similar things and seek to accomplish similar aims. At the same time, the nature of the private school environment appears to be more conducive to achieving these civic ends. Take this striking finding: 43% of private school teachers say that most students in their high school graduate having learned "to be tolerant of people and groups who are different from themselves" compared with just 19% of their public school counterparts. Indeed, private school teachers appear to be much more confident that their graduates are learning the things that both groups of teachers say they want students to learn.

Finally, teachers feel marginalized in the testing era. Farkas and Duffett note that 70% of social studies teachers say their subject is a lower priority because of pressure to show progress on math and language arts. More than four in ten blame No Child Left Behind for deemphasizing their subject. Of course, the reality is that No Child Left Behind has had far more of an impact on elementary and middle schools than on high schools, so it may be that teachers are merely finding the law to be a visible, convenient villain. Nonetheless, 93% of teachers express a strong preference for social studies to become a regularly assessed subject.

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The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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