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Survey: How Civics is Taught in America

A new fact sheet based on our national survey of civics and U.S. government teachers highlights key opportunities and challenges to improving civic education.

In 2013, CIRCLE surveyed a national sample of civics and U.S. government teachers for our Commission on Youth Voting and Civic Knowledge, which produced the report “All Together Now: Collaboration and Innovation for Youth Engagement.” More than 700 teachers responded to the survey and provided valuable information on over 1,000 courses that they taught; they answered questions about the topics, activities, and attitudes featured in their classes, as well as questions about their professional development and pedagogical strategies. The survey was funded by the Robert R. McCormick Foundation.

Today we release a new fact sheet with detailed data from that national teacher survey, along with key conclusions and recommendations.

Some central findings:

  • Virtually all teachers believe in the importance of civic education, but they have varied opinions on what should be taught and prioritized. For example: 79 percent think it is “definitely important” for students to be critical users of news, but only 37 percent believe they must be active members of community groups and associations.
  • Most teachers do not shy away from encouraging discussion of controversial social and political issues, though not all feel it is of utmost importance. While 56 percent agree that students should explicitly discuss these issues, only 32 percent “strongly agree.”
  • Civics and government teachers work in complex environments, and often have not had adequate professional development. Less than half have participated in a multi-day training program, and only 15 percent have had coaching or mentoring by an administrator or an expert.

The survey includes additional data about how teachers approach topics and activities like voting, media literacy, and community service. It also touches on how civics and government teachers incorporated the 2012 election into their courses; an addendum describes some of the creative election-related activities they used in the classroom.

The data also suggest ways in which schools, educational associations, and policymakers can further support teachers and improve civic education in the classroom. For example:

  • Provide resources and create knowledge-sharing opportunities that help teachers integrate practical civic engagement skills and activities in the classroom
  • Support learning exchanges and other mechanisms for teachers to share and grow their teaching repertoires while creating systems of peer support for teaching civics
  • Strengthen teacher education as well as professional development to help teachers build both the critical and conceptual skills for teaching civics and the practical skills required for engagement.