Statistics about the State of Civic Education in American Schools

October 1st, 2010

Civic education is very important to me, and is one of the core missions of the Harlan Institute. We hope that, we can make learning about the Constitution and the Supreme Court a fun and engaging. One of our biggest challenges is to find what students are learning, and help fill that gap. Take a look at this interesting report from AEI, titled High Schools, Civics, and Citizenship, What Social Studies Teachers Think and Do. This study breaks down the state of civic education in our schools.

The findings are based on a national, random sample survey of 866 public high school social studies teachers, an oversample survey of 245 Catholic and private high school social studies teachers, and three focus groups. Social studies teachers are excellent sources of information for this type of research. They are in the trenches, and they can report not only on their own attitudes, priorities, and behaviors, but also on what is actually happening in high schools and school districts.

  • Teaching facts is the lowest priority for social studies teachers when it comes to instruction in citizenship. Of the five priorities high schools may have around the teaching of citizenship, only 20 percent of teachers put teaching key facts, dates, and major events at the top of their list. Furthermore, it is the last of twelve items rated by teachers as absolutely essential to teach high school students: only 36 percent say it is absolutely essential to teach students “to know facts (e.g., location of the fifty states) and dates (e.g., Pearl Harbor).”
  • Out of a list of twelve items, social studies teachers are most likely to say it is absolutely essential for high schools to teach students “to identify the protections guaranteed by the Bill of Rights” (83 percent).
  • Other essential concepts of how the American political system functions garner less enthusiasm. Six in ten deem it absolutely essential for high schools to teach students “to understand such concepts as federalism, separation of powers, and checks and balances” (64 percent) and “to be knowledgeable about such periods as the American Founding, the Civil War, and the Cold War” (63 percent).
  • Are today’s high school students actually reading the nation’s keystone documents? When asked how close this statement comes to their view–“By graduation, virtually all students in my high school have carefully read the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution”–56 percent of teachers say it comes close to their view, but 40 percent say it does not.
  • Finally, teachers’ reliance on textbooks appears to be on the decline. Two out of three (67 percent) say they rely on them “less and less” in their classrooms.

Unfortunately, teachers do not seem to be too confident that students are learning about our system of government:

  • The news is either extremely dire or mildly reassuring, depending on how one reads the data. If the “somewhat confident” and “very confident” categories are combined, 50 percent or more of teachers are confident that most students graduate from their high school knowing eleven of the twelve items concerning citizenship (see table 1).
  • But if only the “very confident” responses are considered–that is, using a higher threshold–the results are grim. Across all items, no more than 24 percent of teachers say they are “very confident” that most of the students from their high school have actually learned them before they graduate. For example:
    • “To identify the protections guaranteed by the Bill of Rights”: 79 percent are confident when the “very” and “somewhat” categories are combined, but just 24 percent are “very confident.”
    • “To have good work habits such as being timely, persistent, and hardworking”: 50 percent are confident when the “very” and “somewhat” categories are combined, but just 6 percent are “very confident.”

Teachers also claim that social studies and civics is not a top priority:

  • Forty-five percent say their school district treats social studies as “an absolutely essential subject area,” while 43 percent say it is considered “important but not essential.”
  • More than four in ten (45 percent) say the social studies curriculum at their high school has been deemphasized as a result of NCLB, though 39 percent say it is “holding its own.”
  • Seven in ten (70 percent) say social studies classes are a lower priority because of pressure to show progress on statewide math and language arts tests.
  • Yet social studies teachers want to hop on the testing bandwagon: 93 percent say “social studies should be part of every state’s set of standards and testing.”