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Teachers and the Decline of Civic Knowledge

Tuesday, September 28th, 2010

Below is a chart from E.D. Hirsch’s must-read lecture on civic education at the Pioneer Institute. The chart shows the steep decline of civic knowledge among 12th graders as measured by the “nation’s report card,” NAEP.


As Hirsch notes, it’s telling that the civic knowledge of 12th graders (i.e., tomorrow’s voters), has been measured a mere three times since 1970. (The most recent assessment was in 2006, and performance for the upper grades has remained flat.) Given the original purpose of schools–educating young people for citizenship–this indifference is a major abdication of responsibility. Hirsch goes on to remark:

The significant decline of civics knowledge is important not just in itself, but also as an indicator of the general change that was occurring in American schools. Civics is a school subject. If students do not know civics it is mostly because the schools have not taught it to them, a fact that reflects not just irresponsible complacency about the proper function of schools in a democracy, but also the more general anti-intellectual orientation and complacency of the schools towards merely academic subjects. [Emphasis added.]

Reports about student ignorance, while disheartening, are nothing new. Yet there is remarkably little attention paid to what schools are actually teaching students. This omission is all the more striking given the recent research on the critical role teachers play in the classroom. We now know that having a good teacher is more predictive of student achievement than class size or even curriculum design. Teachers are both the key to effective civic education and the missing link in the data.

That’s why the first major report of the AEI Program on American Citizenship is a survey of America’s high school social studies teachers on civic education. The report, “High Schools, Civics, and Citizenship: What Social Studies Teachers Think and Do,” will be released next Thursday, September 30. We expect our findings will both affirm and upset common notions about civics instruction today, and education more generally. But more importantly, we hope our report will serve to remind Americans about the crucial role of civic education in a thriving democracy.