A recent report “High Schools, Civics, and Citizenship” crossed my desk with some surprising findings.
First, a note of methodological caution: the survey was a combination mail and e-mail survey with quite low response rates of 6-17%; about 70% of the responses came from e-mail survey inquiries with a 6% response rate. I’m not familiar with the research group (FDR Group), but based on the response rates, I’m not sure I’d bet my first born yet on the results. That said…
One thing interesting about the survey is what was or wasn’t asked. 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). For more on this, see for example, APSA Task force member William Galston’s, Civic Education and Political Participation (PS: Political and Politics Journal, April 2004) or read the APSA Task Force report Democracy at Risk, 2004)
Two other interesting takeaways from the report:
1) 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 are incredibly encouraging since they show a virtual quadrupling of rates for public schools from 2002 and a doubling among private schools. An authoritative National Council for Educational Statistics 2002 estimate put these at 10% for public schools and 40% for private schools. My guess and fear 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.
2) How unified are Democratic and Republican teachers in what to teach? The American Enterprise Institute-sponsored report asks about “The 12 concepts of citizenship”. Note: the grouping of these items into the “12 concepts of citizenship” is the surveyors’ grouping, not the respondents. The high school social studies teachers surveyed were NOT told that these were concepts of citizenship but asked instead “For each item below, please indicate how important do you think it should be for your high school to teach students this?” That’s a different question since as a teacher I might think it is essential for students to learn algebra or learn about world religions even though I wouldn’t as a teacher lump these subjects under “citizenship.” And one of the things asked about — instilling good “work habits” I assume that math teachers, language teachers, English teachers, etc. would all equally agree is essential. Furthermore, as noted above, imparting civic skills were not asked about. With those serious caveats, from among the 12 items asked about, Republican and Democratic teachers were fairly unified on most of these (7 out of 12, covering topics like: the importance of identifying protections guaranteed by the Bill of Rights; teaching good work habits; embracing civic responsibilities like jury duty or voting; teaching about federalism, separation of power, and checks and balances; being knowledgeable about key periods like the American Founding, the Civil War and the Cold War; understanding economic concepts like supply and demand and the role of market incentives; and knowing facts (e.g. location of fifty states) and dates (e.g., Pearl Harbor). Republican teachers did not disagree markedly from Democratic teachers in which they thought were more or less important: the Bill of Rights protections; instilling hard work; and embracing civic duties were more important, and teaching facts less important.
Where they did disagree was interesting. Republican teachers were significantly more likely to think that teaching students to follow rules and respect authority was important (70% of Republican teachers thought it was absolutely essential vs. 55% of Democratic teachers). Democratic teachers were far more likely to stress: teaching tolerance of people and groups who were different (86% absolutely essential for Democratic Teachers vs. 63% for Republican); teaching students to see themselves as global citizens living in an interconnected world (67% absolutely essential Dem. teachers vs. 41% Republican); developing habits of community service such as volunteering and raising money for causes (45% absolutely essential among Democratic teachers vs. 35% for Republican teachers); and teaching students to be activists who challenge the status quo of our political system and seek to remedy injustices (45% essential among Democratic teachers vs. 23% among Republican teachers). 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”.
Anyway, food for thought…
AEI’s Civics study available here.