<< The Body Politic

A (long) response to Thomas Sander on our teacher survey

Friday, November 19th, 2010

Thomas Sander at the Social Capital Blog has an interesting take on our recent survey, High Schools, Civics, and Citizenship. I don’t want to speak for our researchers at the FDR Group or the other contributors to the report, but I would like to make a few comments in response.

First, he writes that:

The researchers at the conservative American Enterprise Institute don’t even ask the high school social studies teachers surveyed how important it is to impart civic skills (organizing others, running a meeting, petitioning others, civic research, presenting evidence persuasively, etc.), even though virtually all scholars agree that civic skills, civic knowledge and an activist civic disposition are the three critical legs to raising more active citizens. Way too many civics courses focus on a mindless memorization of political knowledge (how a bill becomes law, how many Senators there are, etc.) which while important, are far less effective unless these courses also impart civic skills and a sense of efficacy (that students can make a difference).

Perhaps, I’m misunderstanding “civic skills” in this context, but I do think we cover this with the survey. As we write in the report, social studies teachers have a “full plate” when it comes to teaching citizenship in part because of the multifaceted character of citizenship itself. Good (or active) citizenship involves values, behaviors/actions, and knowledge. What we were wanted to find out is how teachers balanced these “important, contending goals”—particularly given the limited time most schools today have for social studies.

Thus, in question 17 (p. 13), we ask teachers to rank five priorities schools might have around citizenship. Among the five priorities we offered is “Promoting civic behaviors such as voting and community service—because citizens must take active responsibility for their community and nation.” This was one of the most popular choices: 49% of public school teachers ranked this priority as number 1 or 2, tied only with “Internalizing core values like tolerance and equality.”

On the list of 12 items (p. 44), we include “To develop habits of community service such as volunteering and raising money for causes” and “To embrace the responsibilities of citizenship such as voting and jury duty.” We also asked teachers how important it was for students to keep up with the news (p. 14).

In any case, I definitely agree teaching civic skills is an important part of civic education. I also agree that focusing on “mindless memorization of political knowledge” is unlikely to engage students, which probably explains teachers’ resistance to teaching “facts” in our survey (pp. 17-18). Still, call us old-fashioned, but we do worry about the low priority the surveyed teachers seem to place on content knowledge, particularly given the poor results from NAEP and the appalling examples of public ignorance we see in the news nearly every day.

Second, Sander notes that:

37% of the public teachers surveyed said their high school had a community-service requirement for graduation versus 82% of the private schools (which were a mix of Catholic parochial schools and secular schools).  If these numbers are true, they show these rates almost quadrupling for public schools from 2002 and doubling among private schools….My guess is that at least some of this apparently significant rise is a consequence of the low response rate on the survey and that AEI heard from the most civicly-minded teachers from the most civicly-minded schools. [Emphasis mine.]

This is a great point, and his guess is likely correct. We should have highlighted this more in the survey. We asked a battery of questions about teachers’ civic engagement and that of their schools (pp. 47-48). The responses suggest the surveyed teachers (and their schools) are pretty civic-minded (which is likely part of the reason they responded to our survey, in the first place!).

Lastly, Sander discusses the differences between Republican and Democratic teachers, which are definitely intriguing (pp. 31-32). In part, they’re intriguing because the teachers don’t really differ that much when it comes to their attitudes about the U.S. or their teaching priorities. As we note, the differences are typically of degree, not kind.

Sander does question our word choice for item 8 (part of the battery of 12 items on pp. 43-44): “Teaching students to be activists who challenge the status quo of our political system and seek to remedy injustices.” He writes:

That last item seems worded in a way designed to divide teachers along partisan lines.  The researchers behind the study could equally well have worded this “teach students to actively get involved and take a stand on political or community issues with which they disagree with how things are being handled” and my guess is that there would have been far less of a Republican/Democratic split and that all teachers would have agreed that being an active citizen is important, even if Republicans are turned off by the buzzwords of “activism” and “remedy injustices”.

I agree that we would have seen less of a divide if we had worded the question as he suggests. I would also expect that the overwhelming majority of teachers would agree students should be active citizens. We even have some evidence of this, in that the surveyed teachers consistently ranked inculcating civic behaviors (such as voting, community service, and raising money for causes) among their top priorities.

That said, we were curious about the oft-made accusation that teachers (particularly public school teachers) are outside of the mainstream or somehow hostile to America. On that score, as Peter Levine notes, our report “rebuts the kind of sharp conservative critique represented by Chester Finn and colleagues in a 2003 Thomas B. Fordham Institute report entitled Where Did Social Studies Go Wrong?.”

Of course, we do share concerns with Finn (who was on our advisory board; for a full listing, see p. 3), particularly in the area of content knowledge. If anything, the survey suggests (to me, at least) that teachers need more support and guidance when it comes to civic education. But the survey is only a starting point for our work, and we’re very appreciative of everyone who has commented on the study thus far.

AEI