SANTA MONICA, Calif. — After a tumultuous election season, the only thing most Americans probably agree on is that they don’t agree on much. A new report is finding that part of the political polarization sweeping the nation may be starting in the schools. Researchers for the RAND Corporation say the majority of social studies teachers don’t have the tools they need to teach children about civics.
“These findings are concerning,” says the report’s lead author and behavioral scientist Laura Hamilton in a media release. “Beyond being a component of social studies, civic education can teach students the skills and attitudes—a sense of civic duty, concern for the welfare of others, critical thinking—that are crucial in a democracy.”
According to the global policy think tank’s survey, just one in five social studies teachers in U.S. public schools feel prepared to teach civics. Most say they need more aid with instructional materials, professional development, and additional training.
Researchers add between one-third and just over half of teachers grades K-12 have not received any training on civic education. This is despite most still prioritizing the school’s role in developing these skills in children.
What are civics?
Civics is the study of the rights, responsibilities, and duties of being a citizen. Along with learning about what it means to be a U.S. citizen, civics also teaches students about the need to respect the rights, beliefs, and opinions of others even if they may not agree with them.
The 2019 survey studied how, in an increasingly polarized political culture with less trust in the media, teachers are handling civics lessons with limited resources. Researchers also looked at what type of support (or resistance) educators are receiving from the community which may be influencing how civics is discussed in class.
The report is part of the think tank’s Truth Decay initiative, which is studying how the role of facts and analysis is fading out of public life in America. The study authors say elementary social studies teachers are least likely to say their lesson plans highlight civic education. K-5 teachers did however focus on social and emotional learning, improving school climate, and conflict resolution among students.
Teachers of color and educators working with English-language learners reported more emphasis on studying civics in the classroom. Most teachers however are not getting these materials from the state; participants say they’re using civics lesson plans they’re finding or making themselves.
“District materials were reported to be culturally appropriate and effective, but at least half of the teachers reported a need for better civics resources and instructional resources more culturally relevant and appropriate for English-language learners,” co-author Julia Kaufman says. “Most reported a need for better civics instructional resources, as well as more nonteaching time and community partnerships to support their efforts to promote students’ civic development.”
Preparing tomorrow’s citizens for the future
The report recommends three main things may done to help educators properly teach children about their role in society. First, RAND recommends teachers receive training and support to promote civic learning, especially in elementary school.
The group adds teachers need more materials to help them provide children with a “full menu” of skills and knowledge. RAND says these materials should also be culturally relevant and tailored to fit all students in a class, especially if they are English-language learners.
Researchers conclude that education policies also need to change. More emphasis on civic educational standards needs to be set and a high-quality curriculum needs to be developed.
The study appears in RAND’s report “Preparing Children and Youth for Civic Life in the Era of Truth Decay: Insights from the American Teacher Panel.”