What social studies teachers think and do

Social studies teachers share the values of ordinary Americans, concludes High Schools, Civics, and Citizenship: What Social Studies Teachers Think and Do, a new American Enterprise Institute study.

Eighty-three percent of high school teachers surveyed believe that the United States is a “unique country that stands for something special in the world,” and 82 percent say high school students should “respect and appreciate their country but know its shortcomings.” This tracks closely with surveys of the general public.

Only 36 percent say it is absolutely essential to teach high school students “facts (e.g., location of the fifty states) and dates (e.g., Pearl Harbor).” Factual knowledge ranks last on list of 12 items. Knowing what’s guaranteed by the Bill of Rights ranks first. (One could argue that’s factual knowledge.)

Only 56 percent of teachers agree that “by graduation, virtually all students in my high school have carefully read the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.”

Teachers split on whether their school districts sees social studies as “an absolutely essential subject area.”

  • Seven in ten (70 percent) say social studies classes are a lower priority because of pressure to show progress on statewide math and language arts tests.
  • Yet social studies teachers want to hop on the testing bandwagon: 93 percent say “social studies should be part of every state’s set of standards and testing.”
  • Teachers stress things that embody a certain spirit of America,” such as the Bill of Rights, “but not about how that spirit is translated into governance” through concepts like federalism and the separation of powers, writes Rick Hess.  Only 24 percent of teachers are “very confident” their students can identify the protections in the Bill of Rights by the end of high school; 15 percent think their students understand federalism and the separation of powers, and 11 percent believe their pupils understand the basic precepts of the free market.

    If teachers with “some confidence” are factored in, half say their students are graduating with an adequate understanding of civics and citizenship.

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    1. On the priorities – I can certainly see that if the kids can’t read they’re not going to benefit from a study of the Constitution.

      Oh, sure, you can go over the high points of the structure and the Bill of Rights, but it’s a document that really needs a close textual analysis for proper understandings.

      And if the kids are doing so poorly in language arts that the school is diverting so much time to that that there’s no time for “social studies” (which I want to be “civics” again)… then that’s probably the best way to spend that time.

      I’d rather they were literate and ignorant of civics than semi-aware of civics and illiterate. It’s a lot easier to learn civics later than to learn reading and math.

      (And raise the voting age back to 21, for that matter. If we’re going to have a culture where most 18 year olds are still children they shouldn’t be voting, then.)

    2. Social studies should be given high priority because students need to develop a respect and an appreciation for our country’s history. If we don’t have a good understanding of what was good about our past we won’t care about preserving it. I disagree though with the 63 percent of the teachers who say that we don’t need to teach such things as location of states and dates. These are essential building blocks for more advanced learning concepts.


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