Social Studies From Our Research Center

Constitution Day: We the People Still Don’t Know Much About the Constitution

By Stephen Sawchuk — September 14, 2017 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Sept. 17 is Constitution Day, and will be celebrated on Monday. But at a time when understanding the U.S. Constitution—its rights, and its limitations on the government—seems more important than ever, many Americans fall well short of even basic knowledge of this all-important document.

That’s the bleak finding from a survey conducted by the Annenberg Public Policy Center and released earlier this week. The poll of a nationally representative sample of 1,013 adults has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.7 percent.

More than a third of Americans could not name a specific right articulated in the First Amendment. “Freedom of speech” clocked in at 48 percent, but the right to peaceably assemble came in at just 10 percent, freedom of religion at 15 percent, freedom of the press at 14 percent, and the right to petition the government at 3 percent.

Only a quarter of respondents could name the three branches of government.

Particularly topical, given the national debate about immigrantion: More than half of those surveyed said, incorrectly, that undocumented immigrants do not have any rights under the Constitution.

And in an era when politicians decry unflattering coverage as “fake news” and tech wizards can penetrate social-media algorithms to place false news articles in front of millions of eyeballs, the poll shows that more than a few Americans are gradually warming up to the idea of curbing freedom of the press. Forty-nine percent of respondents opposed having Congress forbid the news media from reporting on national security without government approval, down from 55 percent in 2016.

A Call for Civics Education?

You don’t need to scratch too far below the surface to see the educational implications here.

“We put out the survey because we’re trying to raise the visibility of the need,” said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, the director of the Annenberg center. “We’re trying to say to parents and teachers and the public at large: Don’t shortchange civics education. It doesn’t matter where you teach it—in history or social studies—just teach it.”

It’s particularly germane today, given what’s been in the news. No matter how distasteful many found the Charlottesville, Va. white-supremicist rally, the right to peaceably assemble is a Constitiutional guarantee. (It’s a different story, of course, when things get violent.) Free speech on college campuses is a huge issue. And with some critics advancing arguments that directly contravene immigrantsconstitutional rights, knowledge of those rights is crucial, Jamieson said.

“These are fundamental things you need to understand to understand the news,” she said. “These rights are interlocking rights; they don’t stand alone, and they’re actively at play in our body politic right now.”

Nationally, 8th grade scores on the civics exam administered as part of the Nation’s Report Card have been flat for nearly two decades, with about half of students scoring at a “basic” level and only about a quarter at a “proficient” level. And Alexandra Harwin, a researcher here at EdWeek, told me after doing some digging around in test questionnaires that only one of five 8th grade students in public schools agree “a lot” that social studies/civics/government is one of their favorite subjects. (Ouch.)

That’s probably one of the reasons for youths’ lack of engagement in civics—even when states have passed laws trying to make some dents in that. In 1985, Texas began requiring high schools to distribute voter-registration materials in school. But a new report by the Texas Civil Rights Project and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, released this month, found that only 198 out of 1,428 public high schools in Texas requested the forms in 2016. It argues that the state needs to distribute the materials to all schools without waiting for the schools to take the first step.

Texas has one of the lowest youth voting rates, the groups said.

Teaching Resources

Teaching about the Constitution on Constitution Day is actually required in public schools receiving federal funds (such as under the Title I program for needy students), thanks to language that the late Sen. Robert Byrd, of West Virginia, the longtime chair of the powerful Senate appropriations subcommittee, added to a spending bill back in 2004.

As with mandates of this sort, it’s all but impossible to enforce, but the committed are out there looking for lessons and resources to use on Monday. Annenberg itself has some neat resources at the Annenberg Classroom site, including these videos on the Constitution’s development, articles, and amendments. Some are narrated by U.S. Supreme Court Justices. It also partners with a variety of other civics groups on this website, which is full of teaching resources.

Discovery Education, meanwhile, is offering a free, virtual tour of the U.S. Senate hosted by two senators. And the Constitution Center has some juicy essays on each of the amendments, part of its Interactive Constitution website.

For the pure policy wonks among you wondering what the educational trends are in civics these days, the Education Commission of the States just put out a report on the rising number of states that require students to take, and sometimes pass, the U.S. Citizenship Test in order to graduate.

Education Week will be doing more coverage of civics education this year, so please do email me if you have thoughts, ideas, and concerns about civics education and best practices thereof.

Photo credit: Chuck Coker/Flickr. Licensed under the Creative Commons.

For more on history and civics:

Related Tags:

A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.