Social Studies

Americans Know More About Civics, But Numbers Still ‘Dismally’ Low, Researchers Say

By Catherine Gewertz — September 12, 2019 4 min read
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Americans know more about constitutional rights and the separation of powers than they did five years ago, but their grasp of those basics in civics is still very weak, according to researchers who released a survey Thursday.

The latest survey of civic knowledge, by the Annenberg Public Policy Center, also found that taking a high school civics class, or keeping up with the news, increases the chances of answering basic questions about civics knowledge correctly.

“Taking that class does make it more likely you’ll score higher on our knowledge scale,” said Ken Winneg, Annenberg’s managing director of survey research.

Thirty-nine percent of the survey respondents correctly named the three branches of government (executive, judicial and legislative) in the 2019 survey, the highest level in five years. Last year, only 32 percent could name all three.

“While this marks an improvement, the overall results remain dismal,” Kathleen Hall Jamieson, the director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center, said in a statement accompanying the report.

“A quarter of U.S. adults can name only one of the three branches of government and more than a fifth can’t name any. The resilience of our system of government is best protected by an informed citizenry. And civics education and attention to news increase that likelihood.”

Read Education Week’s special project on civics education, Citizen Z.

Other results of the survey show results that are a bit sunnier. Fifty-nine percent of the respondents correctly said that if the U.S. Supreme Court issues a 5-4 ruling, that decision is the law, and must be followed. That’s the highest rate of correct response on that question in the 10 times the survey’s been given since 2006. Only 45 percent got that question right in 2007, and it’s risen steadily since then.

While Americans appear to know a bit more about some basics in civics than they did in recent years, Winneg said the survey results can’t address the question of whether more schools are leaning into civics or doing a better job teaching it.

Annenberg releases the civics survey each year around Constitution Day, Sept. 17. Respondents’ grasp of civics basics has varied a good deal over the years. (You can see the answers to the survey questions, and how they’ve shifted between 2006 and 2019, here.)

For instance, 39 percent could name all three branches of government this year, close to the 38 percent who could do so in 2011 and 2013. Only 32 percent could name all three branches in 2018, but that’s about the same as what the survey found in 2006 and 2015. Responses on this question have dipped as low as 26 percent in 2016 and 2017.

People seem to think they have a better grasp of this information than they actually do. When researchers asked people if they knew any of the branches of government, 84 percent said they did. But 22 percent couldn’t name even one branch correctly.

The 2019 study has better news on other aspects of civics knowledge. Far more people were likely to answer correctly when asked basic questions about their rights, the constitution and politics. Here are a few snippets:

  • The U.S. Supreme Court has held that a citizen has a constitutional right to own a handgun (83% agreed, answering correctly)
  • The Constitution allows a judge to insist that defendants testify at their own trial (63% got this right, saying this is inaccurate)
  • If the Supreme Court and the president disagree on whether an action by the president is constitutional, the responsibility for deciding constitutionality resides with the court (61% said this is right, answering correctly)
  • Democrats control the House of Representatives (55% agreed, and got this right. One-quarter were uncertain or didn’t know)
  • Republicans control the Senate (61% agreed, and got this right. One-quarter were uncertain or didn’t know).

Americans also showed a stronger grasp of a basic question about immigrants’ rights than they did two years ago. Fifty-five percent correctly said that it’s inaccurate to say that people who came in the United States illegally have no rights under the constitution. Forty percent, however, thought that statement was accurate. In the 2017 survey, most respondents got that question wrong.

The 2017 Annenberg survey had more bad news, too, about Americans’ poor understanding their government. One in five respondents said, incorrectly, that a 5-4 Supreme Court decision is sent back to Congress for reconsideration. Barely one-quarter knew that Congress has to muster a two-thirds vote to override a presidential veto.

In conjunction with the release of the 2017 survey, Annenberg teamed up with 25 other organizations to launch the Civics Renewal Network, which now offers free instructional resources to teachers.

The 2019 study surveyed 1,104 U.S. adults, 18 or older. Its margin of error is plus or minus 3.6 percentage points.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.