28-Nation Study: Students’ Grasp Of Civics Is Mixed

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — March 21, 2001 6 min read
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American 14-year-olds and their peers around the world have a good grasp of the fundamental principles and processes of democracy, but their understanding is often superficial and detached from real life, concludes a study released here last week that assessed the civic knowledge of 90,000 students in 28 democratic countries.

Moreover, while students recognize the value of participating in civic activities—such as community service and civil protests—they generally doubt the importance of more traditional political action.

“An overwhelming four out of five students in all countries indicated that they do not intend to participate in conventional political activities generally associated with adult political involvement: joining a party, writing letters to newspapers about social and political concerns, and being a candidate for a local or city office,” the report on the findings says. “Nevertheless, students across the various countries are open to forms of civic and political engagement unrelated to electoral politics or parties.”

For More Information

Copies of “Citizenship and Education in Twenty-eight Countries: Civic Knowledge and Engagement at Age Fourteen,” can be ordered by e-mail from The full report is $55. Supplemental information on the report is available online.

The study by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement, or IEA, the Netherlands-based organization that conducted the Third International Mathematics and Science Study, measured students’ knowledge of democratic principles; their skills in interpreting political communication, such as campaign leaflets and political cartoons; their concepts of democracy and citizenship; their attitudes related to trust in institutions, the nation, opportunities for immigrants, and women’s political rights; and their expected participation in civic-related activities.

Seven years in the making, the study is the first survey of civic education undertaken by the organization since 1971.

Encouraging Results

The United States ranked sixth among the nations studied, and was one of just two countries—along with Cyprus—to perform above the international average in all categories. The five countries that scored higher than the United States were Poland, Finland, Cyprus, Greece, and Hong Kong.

“These are encouraging results,” said Gordon M. Ambach, the executive director of the Washington-based Council of Chief State School Officers and the U.S. representative to the IEA. “But the study signals there is continued work to be done in sustaining strong programs."1/4 in sustaining strong programs.”

More detailed results on the performance of students from the United States will be released April 27. The complete data set from the study will be available to researchers next year.

Those results can be used to examine the state of civics education in U.S. schools and to devise strategies for expanding and improving school- and community-based programs, according to Hans Wagemaker, the executive director of the IEA, which has 56 member nations.

“Today we talk about the international results, but much of the work and power of these studies takes place at the national level,” where educators and policymakers will determine what steps are needed to improve civics education, Mr. Wagemaker said.

The IEA survey gauged students’ knowledge of the fundamental processes of democracy, not specific aspects of their own country’s government.

In other studies, such as the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which ask for more specific information about American government, students have not performed as well. The 1998 NAEP test in civics, for example, found that while a majority of the 4th, 8th, and 12th graders tested knew basic facts about government—such as who was the president—most could not demonstrate deeper knowledge, such as how a country benefits from having a constitution, or how bills become laws. (“Beyond Basics, Civics Eludes U.S. Students,” Nov. 24, 1999.)

Echoing similar conclusions from the NAEP data, the IEA study found that students with real-life experiences, such as participation in mock trials or student government, as well as those who were encouraged to take part in a democratic fashion in classroom activities, had greater civic knowledge and engagement outside the classroom than other students.

But a majority of teachers in the study reported that recitation, textbooks, and worksheets still dominated their instruction.

Among the other findings:

•About one-third of the students in participating countries were unable to interpret a simple election leaflet.

•Most of the students—80 percent—considered voting to be an important civic responsibility, and the vast majority expressed their intention to vote as adults. (That finding, however, is at odds with the reality that in several of the participating countries, far fewer than the total number of eligible voters take part in elections.)

•More than 85 percent of an international sample of students rely on television broadcasts for their political news. In most countries, students trust television reports more than those in newspapers, except in the United States, where students place more trust in newspaper accounts.

•Students’ trust in government institutions is similar to the view of adults. Students tend to trust the courts and the police the most and political parties the least.

The results underscore that established democracies have no room for complacency when it comes to educating and mobilizing students for civic engagement.

The United States and Italy were the only recognized world economic powers to perform above the international norm on the civic-knowledge portion of the test. Germany, England, and the Russian Federation scored just below the international average of 100, on a 160-point scale.

The gaps between the highest-performing and lowest-performing countries, however, were much smaller than those found in TIMSS.

Roughly half the countries studied are in a post-Communist era. And new democracies, such as Poland, the Slovak Republic, and the Czech Republic, were among the top performers in civic knowledge.

Youth Activism

Ironically, students’ disenchantment with traditional political involvement comes at a time when teenage volunteerism for community activities and social organizations is on the rise.

Youth organizations provide an untapped resource for bolstering students’ civic engagement, according to the report’s chief author.

“There is an enormous amount of positive energy among today’s youth,” said Judith Torney-Purta, a professor of human development at the University of Maryland College Park. “We need to find out what kinds of opportunities that might pose for effective political participation.”

Observers said the findings should signal the next step in expanding civic education beyond the classroom.

‘Embarrassment of Riches’

“The report reveals an embarrassment of riches,” said Steven Cuthbertson, the president of Youth Service America, a Washington-based resource center that promotes student volunteerism and service learning.

“We’ve been working for 15 years to increase the amount of service learning students are involved in, and [volunteerism] is growing, but I’m embarrassed that young people sense that that is an alternative to civic participation.”

“The two,” he added, “are intricately linked.”

While many students will work enthusiastically in meaningful community programs, such as feeding the homeless, Mr. Cuthbertson said, most fail to see the connection between such issues and their public-policy implications.

“They walk away feeling great about helping those people,” he said, “but they’ve done absolutely nothing to solve the hunger problem in America.”

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A version of this article appeared in the March 21, 2001 edition of Education Week as 28-Nation Study: Students’ Grasp Of Civics Is Mixed


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