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Jenna Schuette: Teaching Citizenship

Friday, July 2nd, 2010

Recent education reforms such as the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) and the Common Core standards movement have kept the spotlight on mathematics and reading, overshadowing other vital subjects such as history and civics. A 2006 study by the Center for Education Policy found that 71 percent of the surveyed districts reported they have reduced instructional time in at least one other subject to make more time for reading and math due to NCLB.

The Center for Civic Education, the National Conference of State Legislatures, and many others have launched impressive campaigns to attract attention back to civic education. However, the lack of useful data on both expectations for civic education and teachers’ attitudes towards civic education makes thoughtful policy discussion difficult.

Students’ civics knowledge has remained rudimentary and stagnant over the years. The most recent 2006 NAEP civics test reports that only 27 percent of twelfth graders scored at or above the proficient level. Students in grades 4, 8, and 12 who took the NAEP civics test in 1998 scored at the same level as students in 2006, with improvement only in grade 4.

However, there’s little clarity as to what is meant by “citizenship” in schooling today. In 1996, 86 percent of respondents to the annual Phi Delta Kappan/Gallup poll said “prepar[ing] students to become responsible citizens” was a “very important” goal for public education. However, the 2000 poll found that training “responsible citizens” wasn’t nearly as important as “enhance[ing] people’s happiness and enrich[ing] their lives” and “dispel[ing] inequities in education among certain schools and certain groups.” The PDK/Gallup poll has not asked questions regarding citizenship and schooling since 2000.

Most essential to assessing our civics education is a better understanding of teachers’ attitudes and actions in regards to citizenship and the classroom. Before suggesting reforms to current policies that may stunt civic education, we must understand what teachers are being expected teach, what teachers are teaching, and what civic ideals teachers esteem in their classrooms. It’s very possible that our idea of civic education has evolved over the years and that current policies, curricula, or even school structures are not supporting our goals.

AEI’s new Program on American Citizenship has partnered with AEI’s education policy department to take a closer look at precisely that. The forthcoming fall 2010 report, “Schools, Civics and Citizenship: What Teachers Think and Do,” asks teachers what civic values or facts they believe to be most important for their students to learn, what the current system expects to be taught and what is realistically happening in their classroom.

A preliminary read of the survey data suggests that almost half of the teachers surveyed have seen social studies de-emphasized as a result of NCLB and that teaching “facts” is considered amongst the least important objectives for social studies teachers. Stay tuned for the AEI report this fall. It promises to be a helpful addition to the discussion, and will offer guidance on what to do next to ensure our children are getting the best education.

Jenna M. Schuette is a research assistant in education policy at AEI.

Image by Marxchivist.

Cross-posted at the Enterprise Blog.