Teaching citizenship: where teachers and citizens part company

I had planned to post this link over the Fourth of July weekend, but the NEA convention distracted me. Since we’re just ending the month’s second big patriotic holiday weekend (in Utah, at least), I’m returning to the theme of citizenship education.

Last month, and not long after the National Assessment of Educational Progress released its (depressing) citizenship test results, the American Enterprise Institute published a study comparing the attitudes of citizens in general, and social studies teachers in particular, toward citizenship education. Here’s the link: www.aei.org/.

The two groups agreed on many things, most notably the most important concepts of citizenship. But I found the areas of divergence more interesting — and troubling. To quote from the study: “Almost 40 percent of citizens rank teaching facts first or second, compared to half that percentage for teachers. Similarly, 63 percent of citizens rank instilling good work habits first or second, a priority that just over 40 percent of teachers feel is that important. On the other end, a meager 18 percent of the public want schools to promote civic behaviors like voting and community service, compared to almost half of all teachers.”

I puzzled over this last piece of information. Do citizens — especially parents – really not care about teachers encouraging students to vote? I know that when I taught government, I always threatened to haunt my students’ dreams if they failed to vote (they didn’t seem too alarmed.) I wonder if what this divergence between citizens and social studies teachers really means is that citizens worry about teachers promoting their own voting preferences.

And what about instilling good work habits? Since most of the teachers I know spend a fair amount of time bemoaning poor student work habits, I’m again trying to read between the lines. Are teachers worried that citizens in general place too much emphasis on preparing students to succeed in the workplace?

As for the divergence over the importance of teaching facts, I suspect this mostly reflects the strong push in educational circles to focus on developing critical thinking skills rather than merely transferring knowledge. But I stand with the citizenry here. If our students are going to think critically about their government — and exercise their citizenship rights intelligently — then they need to know more facts than they’re apparently learning.

What do you think?

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