Earlier this year, students at Iowa’s Burlington High School joined thousands of their peers in a nationwide protest advocating for stricter gun laws. Nearby, a handful of their classmates staged their own demonstration in support of the Second Amendment.
For David Keane, the principal of the school near the Quad Cities, the goal was: Make sure his students engaged in a respectful, productive conversation on an issue that can send adults straight to tantrum territory, especially on social media.
Keane said he told his students “ ‘you have to be rational, you have to be empathetic to what the other side has to say’. ... We encourage kids to have differing viewpoints, but we encourage them to be respectful because that’s the only way you’ll get anything accomplished.”
Keane and more than half a dozen other school leaders interviewed by Education Week say they see helping students learn how to have a constructive dialogue on hot-button issues in a polarized political climate as a key goal of civics education.
But those conversations may not be happening often enough. More than half of principals, assistant principals, and other school leaders say schools don’t focus enough on civics, according to a nationally representative survey by the Education Week Research Center.
Fifty-two percent of the school leaders surveyed said that there is “too little” civics education in schools, while another 48 percent said there is just the right amount. Only one principal who participated in the survey felt there was “too much” civics education. The survey was fielded online in February, March, and April of 2018 to 524 school-based leaders. The margin of error is plus or minus 4 percent.
“I think there’s not enough, and I think there’s not enough of an expectation,” said Julia Putnam, the principal of James & Grace Lee Boggs School in Detroit, a charter school serving students in grades K through 8. “I don’t think that the way we talk about education makes it a goal or an expectation that students come out feeling like informed active citizens.”
But student interest in civics appears to be building. About half of principals—51 percent—said there’s been an uptick in their students’ engagement around civics since the February massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. That event—and the Parkland students’ own subsequent activism—spawned a nationwide walkout and protests around the country in March and April.
The students participated in the walkout at Elisha Robert’s charter school, STRIVE Prep-Rise in Denver, part of a regional network of charters where most students qualify for free and reduced-price lunch.
But, she said, many of her students—unlike the Parkland students, who are from a well-resourced community—aren’t sure how to take their activism to the next level.
“They don’t understand the next piece of accessing power,” Roberts, the school’s principal, said. “They might organize a walkout and feel really strongly, and then it ends there. They don’t understand, OK, great, the next piece is to contact your local government. ... I’ve definitely seen them caring about issues more. But there’s still that disconnect of ‘what do I do next?’”
Roberts said her school strives to help its students understand and engage on issues that impact them and their community.
Not Enough Time
But not all schools are able to make time for those types of lessons.
Seventy percent of principals and other school leaders surveyed said their schools don’t offer civics as a stand-alone course. Instead, it is often combined with other social studies subjects, such as history or geography. And the vast majority of principals—75 percent—said their schools devote 25 percent or less of their history or social studies curriculum to civics.
High schoolers get more civics instruction than elementary school students. The median amount of time that high school students spend on civics education is 10 hours a month, as compared to 6.5 hours in middle school and five hours in elementary, according to the survey.
Keane, the Burlington principal, wishes his students got a healthier dose of civics instruction early on.
“I think civics education can’t be restricted to high schools,” he said. “I think there’s way too much emphasis on reading, writing, and math, and a lot of good old-fashioned ethics and values are not being addressed because the teacher doesn’t want to get into controversy and they don’t want to give up the time because it’s not a tested subject. That’s not just Iowa. That’s everywhere.”
In fact, principals surveyed overwhelmingly said the pressure to focus on other subjects that are tested or emphasized is one of the main reasons that civics education gets shorter shrift than they’d like.
Asked to rate some of the challenges to civics learning, more than half of the principals—51 percent—said that they found it “challenging” or “very challenging” to focus on civics when schools are held accountable primarily for reading and math test scores. Another 28 percent said the focus on other subjects is “somewhat challenging” when it comes to getting attention for civics.
The results of reading and math tests “are the scores that get published in the newspaper,” said Dan Rispens, the principal of East Valley Middle School in East Helena, Mont., a small town just outside the state capital.
And 59 percent said they found it “somewhat challenging”, “challenging”, or “very challenging” to focus on civics because it isn’t a district or school priority.
“Most people look at history and say ‘you can Google it.’ If you want to know something about government, you can Google it,” said Bob Priest, the principal of Van Wert High School in western Ohio. “You don’t need to know it, you can Google it. Many people don’t see the relevance of it. There’s so much more to civics than what people give credit to.”
A little more than a quarter of the principals surveyed say finding resources for civics education is either “challenging” or “very challenging.” Another 36 percent say that it’s “somewhat challenging.”
Civics education is “the first thing to go when there’s budget cuts,” said Roberts of Denver’s STRIVE-Prep Rise charter school.
And slightly more than 50 percent of principals surveyed said that it was at least “somewhat challenging” to delve into civics education because it can touch on controversial or politically charged topics.
“How do you teach some of these concepts without offending half the people in the room?” asked Brent Anderson, the principal of Murphy Junior High in Plainfield, Ill., near Chicago. “You have to be cognizant of your community. How can you approach a topic in a way that’s acceptable?”
But principals also say that teaching students how to have productive conversations about touchy topics is a key goal of civics education. It is not something they can shy away from, particularly as the national political debate becomes increasingly fractious and polarized.
“I look at adult behavior [in civic discourse] right now, and I think ‘that person would be in my office’,” Putnam said. “If we want something different, we have to teach our kids to do something different.”
Holly Yettick, the director of the Education Week Research Center, contributed to this article.
A version of this article appeared in the July 18, 2018 edition of Education Week as Our Students Don’t Get Enough Civics, Principals Say