<< Restoring Civic Attachment In Our Young People

Press Release: New AEI survey on civic education

Thursday, September 30th, 2010

Media inquiries: Sara Huneke



FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: September 30, 2010

Civics, once the cornerstone of public education, has fallen off the radar in the era of standardized testing. Teachers feel increasing pressure to show progress on student math and reading skills to the detriment of civic education. This is one of the many striking findings in a new report by the AEI Program on American Citizenship, a new initiative dedicated to strengthening the foundations of freedom and self-government by renewing the understanding of American citizenship.

The report, High Schools, Civics, and Citizenship: What Social Studies Teachers Think and Do, explores the views and practices of those most responsible for educating and shaping America’s young citizens–high school history and social studies teachers. It includes data gleaned from a survey of over 1,000 public and private high school teachers. Commissioned by AEI’s Program on American Citizenship, the survey was conducted by the Farkas Duffett Research Group. To see the full report, please visit www.aei.org/paper/100145.

“For all the laudable attention paid to reading and math in the past decade, we seem to have turned a blind eye to the crucial role schools play as shapers of character and pillars of citizenship,” says AEI director of education policy studies Frederick M. Hess. “In this national survey, Steve Farkas and Ann Duffett do a remarkable job of illuminating the consequences of neglecting what is being taught in American high schools. They provide a needed window into the attitudes and concerns of our high school social studies teachers.”

Among the survey’s key findings:

Despite concerns about anti-American sentiment in schools of education, teacher attitudes and values reflect what most would regard as a vision of responsible citizenship.

  • Fully 83 percent of teachers believe that the United States is a unique country that stands for something special in the world; 11 percent see it as just another country, no better and no worse than others. Similarly, 82 percent say students should learn to “respect and appreciate their country but know its shortcomings.”
  • About three in four teachers (76 percent) say that high schools should impart respect for military service.

Teachers are largely uncertain as to what should be taught about civics. They set too low a bar for what they expect students to know about American history and government.

  • Facts, such as key dates and the location of the fifty states, are the lowest priority for social studies teachers when it comes to teaching citizenship. Notions of tolerance and rights are emphasized instead of history, facts, and key constitutional concepts.
  • Only six in ten teachers deem it absolutely essential for high schools to teach students “to understand such concepts as federalism, separation of powers, and checks and balances” (64 percent) and “to be knowledgeable about such periods as the American Founding, the Civil War, and the Cold War” (63 percent).

Public school teachers are not confident that students are learning.

  • Regarding key concepts of citizenship, no more than 24 percent of public school teachers express great confidence that most of the students from their high school have actually learned these concepts before they graduate.

Social studies teachers believe their subject area is not viewed as a top priority—and that testing is partly to blame.

  • Seven in ten (70 percent) say social studies classes are a lower priority because of pressure to show progress on statewide math and language arts tests.
  • Nonetheless, social studies teachers want to hop on the testing bandwagon: 93 percent say “social studies should be part of every state’s set of standards and testing.”

Public and private school teachers share remarkably similar views when it comes to what students should learn about citizenship. Yet private school teachers express greater confidence that their subject is valued by their schools, and, more importantly, that their students are learning.

  • Private school teachers are almost twice as likely to report having a great deal of control over what topics they choose to cover and how quickly they move through the curriculum (86 percent versus 45 percent).
  • Private school teachers report significantly higher levels of confidence that most students in their high schools learn what they are supposed to know before they graduate.
  • Private school teachers are also more likely to report an overall more positive school atmosphere for conveying the importance of citizenship.

Gary J. Schmitt, director of the AEI Program on American Citizenship, concludes, “This survey shows that teachers take the subject of civics seriously, but they lack guidance and support from parents, principals, and policymakers. Making matters worse, teachers seem to be at sea as to what the content of a civics curriculum should be–with key concepts and important facts ‘failing’ to make the grade.”

Frederick M. Hess is available for interview and can be contacted through Jenna Schuette at [email protected], (202.862.5809). Gary J. Schmitt is available for interview and can be contacted through Cheryl Miller at Cheryl Miller, (202.419.5208). For additional media inquiries, please contact Sara Huneke, (202.862.4870).