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Friday, October 1, 2010

Teaching Citizenship: A Survey of Social Studies Teachers

The American Enterprise Institute has just issued a new report, High Schools, Civics, and Citizenship What Social Studies Teachers Think and Do, by Gary J. Schmitt, Frederick M. Hess, Steve Farkas, Ann M. Duffett, Cheryl Miller, Jenna M. Schuette. This study asks: what are teachers trying to teach about citizenship and what it means to be an American? The findings are based on a national, random sample survey of 866 public high school social studies teachers, an oversample survey of 245 Catholic and private high school social studies teachers, and three focus groups.

The report (full text here) is worth quoting at length.

Fully 83 percent of social studies 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. This finding is remarkably close to the results of a study of parents with children in public schools conducted over a decade ago. In that survey, 84 percent said they believed the United States stands for something special in the world, while only 13 percent saw it as just another country, no better or worse than others.
[The United States] is the only country where Israelis and Palestinians can live neighborhood to neighborhood, there’s no bombs going off, no rockets being fired. It is very unique here. We have such a mixture of people. —New Jersey teacher

This appreciative sentiment carries through to concrete issues, such as how we should view the military. About three in four social studies teachers (76 percent)—and an even higher percentage of those who teach ELL students (84 percent)—say that respect for military service is something high schools should impart. This finding may be strongly influenced by current events and experiences that hit close to home. Sadly, in each focus group conducted for this project, at least one teacher spoke about having a former student who had served in the military and been killed in the line of duty. Each used this experience to communicate to students the importance and value of military service.
I’ve already been to three student funerals who have died in the Marines. . . . Do it because it’s something you truly believe in, because all three of the [funerals] I’ve been to have been for kids who truly believed that [service] was their way of being involved. It was an ideal, it wasn’t cash, it was “This is what I should do.” —Arizona teacher
In the morning, if they have [the] Pledge of Allegiance or play the national anthem, I will not let a student sit down. . . . I’ve had various students who have gone into the military. I say [to students], “If anything, you are going to respect their service.” . . . A month ago when one of my students died in Iraq . . . the whole school went out into the street. It had to be one of the greatest days in the school, because you saw the school come out and give thanks to that student for his service. —New Jersey teacher
According to social studies teachers, most schools do signal the implicit message of loyalty to the nation during school activities. About eight in ten (79 percent) say it is typical for their high school to play the national anthem at schoolwide assemblies or sports and cultural events.

The survey asked teachers to elaborate on this question: what are the specific characteristics, behaviors, and knowledge of citizenship you try to impart to your students? The list is long and thorough. Nearly eight in ten (78 percent) say it is absolutely essential to teach high school students “to embrace the responsibilities of citizenship such as voting and jury duty.”

Ultimately, one is inclined to caution against a surfeit of optimism or pessimism. In the survey, only 18 percent of social studies teachers are “very confident” that most graduates from their high school embrace the responsibilities of citizenship such as
voting and jury duty; combined with the “somewhat” category, a total of 65 percent are confident. In reality, 48.5 percent of citizens eighteen to twenty-four year sold voted in the 2008 presidential electio—supporting neither the best- nor worst-case scenario.