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Social Studies Opinion

Where Teachers and the Public Agree, and Disagree, on Civics Education

By Rick Hess — June 17, 2011 3 min read
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The past decade has seen remarkably little attention to citizenship education in American schooling. That, I’d argue, is one factor contributing to the latest, dismal NAEP results in civics and history. What such results don’t tell us though is what Americans themselves think about citizenship education. Do they think it’s important? Do they think particular topics deserve more attention? Do they have strong feelings about how it’s taught? Indeed, the last study to address this question was Public Agenda’s 1998 report “A Lot To Be Thankful For;" the annual Phi Delta Kappan/Gallup poll has not asked about this topic since 2000.

That’s why I’ve been championing more serious and sustained attention to these questions. Last fall, you may recall, my AEI shop published Steve Farkas and Ann Duffett’s study “High Schools, Civics, and Citizenship: What Social Studies Teachers Think and Do,” which examined the behaviors and beliefs of high school civics teachers. Farkas and Duffett found that social studies teachers felt marginalized in the NCLB era, with few confident that their students were mastering key elements of citizenship like, you know, being able to identify protections in the Bill of Rights.

Now, in a companion study, my colleagues Daniel Lautzenheiser, Andrew Kelly, and Cheryl Miller, have crunched brand-new data they’ve collected on public attitudes to examine how similar or different are the attitudes of teachers and the public when it comes to civics education. The report, “Contested Curriculum: How Teachers and Citizens View Civics Education,” compares teachers’ views with those of the general public using data collected as part of the Cooperative Congressional Election Study in 2010. Lautzenheiser et al. conclude, “While citizens and teachers often have similar beliefs about what topics and concepts are most essential to teach about citizenship, important differences emerge on issues like whether schools should emphasize teaching facts and dates and on topics like tolerance and global citizenship...We also uncover a significant amount of pessimism from the public about whether high school students are actually learning much about citizenship in high school.” Some key takeaways:

First, citizens were nearly twice as likely as teachers to rank “teaching facts” as a top priority. The public was also more likely to rank “instilling good work habits” higher, with 63 percent of the public (but just over 40 percent for teachers) ranking it as one of their top two priorities. This does raise the question that I broached last fall regarding “transactional citizenship,” and our inclination to sometimes seemingly reduce citizenship to the basket of skills and habits that will get students into college or a job. Meanwhile, just 18 percent of the public wanted schools to promote civic behaviors (such as voting and community service) compared to nearly 50 percent of teachers.

Second, there was substantial doubt on the part of the public that students were actually learning knowledge or skills related to citizenship. Only a third of respondents are confident high school graduates can identify the protections in the Bill of Rights and know facts (such as the location of the 50 states) or key dates (such as Pearl Harbor).

Third, there’s a bizarre inverse relationship between the items that the public thinks important for citizenship education and its confidence that high school graduates have learned them. The authors term this “incongruence.” Remarkably, the issues that the public thinks are most essential for students to learn are the ones they are least confident high school graduates know, while the four issues the public deems least important for students to know are the same four they feel most confident students are actually learning. (These four all involve civic behaviors rather than content; they include community service, tolerance of different groups, and learning to be an activist who will challenge the status quo.)

Finally, the authors report Republicans and Democrats are divided on a number of key items. Republicans were more likely than Democrats to view teaching facts and understanding American government as top priorities, while Dems were about three times more likely to view embracing core values (like tolerance and equality) as a top priority. At the same time, both Dems and Republicans agreed that instilling good work habits was the top priority overall and that promoting civic behaviors was the lowest priority.

As a former high school social studies teacher (and, let’s not forget, author of Bringing the Social Sciences Alive), I’ve got a huge soft spot for this stuff. If you’re with me on that, it’s worth checking out.

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