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AEI Report: Contested Curriculum

Thursday, June 16th, 2011

Contested Curriculum
How Teachers and Citizens View Civics Education

By Daniel K. Lautzenheiser, Andrew P. Kelly, and Cheryl Miller

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This policy brief is the first in a series by AEI’s Program on American Citizenship. The program is dedicated to strengthening the foundations of American freedom and self-government by renewing our understanding of American citizenship.


Americans are rightly concerned that schools are not providing students with the knowledge and habits necessary to be good citizens. In remarks to a group of civics educators last March, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan affirmed the central importance of civics education, even as he acknowledged that the subject had been pushed to the sidelines in many schools.

Duncan noted the consequences of that neglect: “Nearly two-thirds of Americans cannot name all three branches of government. Yet three in four people can name all of the Three Stooges. Less than half of the public can name a single Supreme Court justice. And more than a quarter do not know who America fought in the Revolutionary War.”

The recent release of the 2010 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) Civics Report Card provides additional grounds for concern. The report found that a mere 24 percent of high school seniors scored on the proficient level on the NAEP civics exam, a slight decrease from four years ago. A similar pattern held true for fourth and eighth graders: 27 percent and 22 percent, respectively, scored proficient or higher. Only 64 percent of seniors scored on even the basic level, with a paltry 4 percent considered advanced.

However, while civics ignorance is nothing new, its causes—and possible remedies—are not so well understood. Given this paucity of research, the AEI Program on American Citizenship has set out to explore what teachers and the public think our high schools should be teaching about citizenship and whether they believe high schools are actually achieving those goals. In spring 2010, we developed and commissioned a survey, High Schools, Civics, and Citizenship: What Social Studies Teachers Think and Do, to investigate what high school social studies teachers are teaching today about citizenship.

We then administered a portion of the survey to a representative sample of one thousand American citizens as part of the Cooperative Congressional Election Study. We use these data in this report to make two basic comparisons. In the first section, we compare the attitudes and preferences of social studies teachers to those of the public. In the second, we break the public out into Democrats and Republicans and document important differences across those two partisan groups. The results, particularly the areas of agreement and disagreement across these various stakeholders, have implications for the teaching of citizenship in America’s high schools.

In general, we find that 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. Importantly, 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. More troubling, perhaps, is that citizens express more confidence that students are learning the concepts they see as less essential and express less confidence on those topics they see as most essential. Finally, we find evidence that citizens are reluctant to recommend that high schools promote civic behaviors like community service and raising money for causes, believing instead that teaching facts and concepts should take priority.

Not surprisingly, Democrats and Republicans are often split over which aspects of citizenship education are most important. Republicans are more likely to see teaching facts, respect for the military, and love of country as critical, while Democrats attach more importance to teaching values like tolerance. Republicans are also considerably more skeptical that students are learning these citizenship concepts, and they exhibit a greater degree of incongruence between which concepts are essential to teach and which ones students are actually learning. We believe these divides have clear implications for reforming and improving citizenship education in the near future. So long as these concepts divide party identifiers, consensus will be difficult to reach.