How Are U.S. Public School Teachers Approaching Civic and Citizenship Education?

Published Sep 29, 2022

by Melissa Kay Diliberti, Julia H. Kaufman

High school students heading to their next classes at Hinsdale South High School in Darien, Illinois, May 13, 2021, photo by Antonio Perez/Chicago Tribune via Reuters

Photo by Antonio Perez/Chicago Tribune via Reuters

Key Findings

  • Among U.S. public school teachers surveyed, those at the elementary level were more likely than those at the secondary level to indicate civic and citizenship education is integrated into all subjects taught at school.
  • Overall, U.S. teachers most commonly chose the development of students' critical thinking and their skills in conflict resolution as among the most important aims of civics and citizenship education. Nevertheless, elementary teachers were more likely than secondary teachers to say that aims focused on building students' social and emotional skills were among the most important.
  • Even after accounting for school grade level and subjects taught, female teachers more often than male teachers selected developing students' skills in conflict resolution and reducing racism as among their top aims of civic and citizenship education. Meanwhile, male teachers were more likely to select promotion of social, political, and civic knowledge and defending one's point of view as top aims.
  • U.S. public school teachers agreed with their international peers on many of the top aims of civics and citizenship education, although differing survey time periods limit our ability to fully tease out differences.

What is the purpose of public schools? This has been a much-debated question since the inception of public education in the United States and in countries across the globe. Examination of this question raises additional ones about what it means to prepare children to live productive and self-sufficient lives and to contribute to society.

When U.S. adults were asked in a 2016 poll what they thought to be the main goal of the public education system, a majority said the focus should be on preparing students academically or for the labor force. Only 26 percent said the main goal should be to "prepare students to be good citizens" (PDK International, 2016). Similarly, research has documented that U.S. public schools are now focusing less on preparing students for civic life and more on academic and career preparation (Hansen et al., 2018; Winthrop, 2020). However, recent events (for example, attempts to delegitimize the 2020 presidential election, protests against systematic racism) have brought renewed attention to the importance of civic and citizenship education and the role that public schools play in preparing youth to engage in civic life (see Winthrop, 2020; Vasilogambros, 2021; Alexander et al., 2021).

How is civic and citizenship education provided in U.S. public schools? What do U.S. public school teachers believe to be the most important aims of civic and citizenship education? (See Box 1.)

To find out, we fielded a survey to a nationally representative sample of U.S. public school teachers of all subjects in November 2021. The survey items we administered came from the International Civic and Citizenship Education Study (ICCS)—an international effort to assess students' civic knowledge and skills and to examine how countries differ in their approaches to teaching civic and citizenship education (International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA), undated). The United States has not participated in ICCS (formerly called CIVED) since 1999, limiting both our ability to understand how U.S. public schools are approaching this topic and our ability to situate the U.S. experience in an international context. With permission from ICCS's sponsoring agency, the IEA, we administered several ICCS survey items to a nationally representative sample of U.S. public school teachers to help fill these gaps. This work builds on previous RAND Corporation research exploring how the U.S. education system can better prepare youth to engage in civic life (Hamilton, Kaufman, and Hu, 2020).

Elementary Teachers Were More Likely Than Secondary Teachers to Indicate Civic And Citizenship Education Is Integrated Into All Subjects Taught At School

We asked our national sample of U.S. public school teachers how civic and citizenship education was provided at their school. Their responses suggest that civic and citizenship education is often siloed into specific subjects. Overall, roughly half of the U.S. teachers we surveyed said civic and citizenship education is provided by subject-specific social science teachers; only a quarter reported that these topics are integrated into all subjects taught at school or are part of the whole school experience.

However, elementary teachers were more likely than secondary (middle and high school) teachers to report that civic and citizenship education is considered the result of the whole school experience and that it is integrated into all subjects at school (see Figure 1). Conversely, secondary teachers were more likely to say that this content is taught by subject-specific civics teachers or other social science teachers who teach such topics as history, geography, and economics. This pattern aligns with our expectations, given that social studies is typically taught by the same teacher alongside other core subjects in elementary school but is taught as a separate class or course in secondary school.

Few elementary and secondary teachers (4 and 5 percent, respectively) indicated that civic and citizenship education is taught at their school through extracurricular activities. In their responses, teachers may not have viewed some common extracurricular activities (for example, working on the school newspaper or participating in student government) as ones that teach students civic skills, even though such activities can implicitly or explicitly teach civic skills and dispositions (Guilfoile, Delander, and Kreck, 2016).

Figure 1. How Do U.S. Public School Teachers Say Civic and Citizenship Education Is Provided at Their School?

Elementary Secondary
It is taught by teachers of subjects related to human/social sciences.a* 36% 66%
It is integrated into all subjects taught at school.* 34% 12%
It is considered the result of school experience as a whole.* 30% 20%
It is taught as a separate subject by teachers of subjects related to civic and citizenship education.* 12% 22%
It is an extracurricular activity. 4% 5%

NOTES: This figure is based on the following survey item: How is civic and citizenship education taught at your school? (response choices are shown in the figure; n = 988). This question was taken from the 2016 International Civic and Citizenship Education Study National Contexts Survey (Köhler et al., 2018, Appendix A). Respondents were instructed to "select all that apply"; therefore, percentages do not add up to 100. The survey question also provided an "other" option that was selected by 4 percent of respondents and has been omitted from this figure. An asterisk (*) indicates that the percentage of elementary teachers who indicated civic and citizenship education was taught in that manner is statistically significantly different (p < 0.05) from the percentage of secondary teachers who responded similarly.

a "Human/social sciences" includes, for example, history, geography, law, and economics.

We also explored whether teachers' reports about how civic and citizenship education is approached varied depending on what subject they teach. Social science teachers (those who teach courses in general social studies, geography, history, government or civics) were twice as likely as their peers to indicate that civic and citizenship education is integrated into all subjects at school. However, this difference is likely a reflection of the school grade level: Most (76 percent) of the teachers in our sample who reported teaching social science subjects were elementary teachers of all subjects who might be particularly inclined to cover civics-related content across multiple subject areas.

Aside from grade level differences, teachers' reports of their schools' approaches to providing civic and citizenship education did not differ much when comparing different demographic characteristics or different types of schools (for example, schools that varied by student racial/ethnic composition, poverty level, urbanicity, etc.). There was one exception: Even after controlling for school grade level, a higher percentage of White teachers than Black teachers said that civic and citizenship education is the result of the whole school experience.

U.S. Teachers Most Commonly Chose the Development of Students' Critical Thinking and Their Skills in Conflict Resolution as the Most Important Aims of Civic and Citizenship Education

We asked U.S. public school teachers to choose the three most important aims of civic and citizenship education among ten aims listed on the survey. Survey respondents most often selected "promoting students' critical and independent thinking" as among their top three aims: roughly two-thirds of respondents selected this topic as among the most important (see Figure 2). After this, "developing students' skills and competencies in conflict resolution," and "promoting knowledge of citizens' rights and responsibilities" were the most common topics identified as important aims of civic and citizenship education, selected by 54 and 41 percent, respectively, of surveyed teachers. Notably, these are all aims categorized by ICCS as focused on developing students' civic and political knowledge and skills.

One-third or fewer of the respondents selected each of the remaining aims, which generally focused on developing students' sense of responsibility and active participation in civic life. Although future civic engagement is an important aim mentioned by many who support civic and citizenship education in schools (Educating for American Democracy, undated), U.S. public school teachers did not view "preparing students for future political engagement" as a top priority: Only 5 percent selected this as one of their top three aims.

Figure 2. What Do U.S. Public School Teachers Consider the Most Important Aims of Civic and Citizenship Education at School?

Percentage of U.S. teachers who selected as among top three aims

ICCS categorizes aim as focused on developing students' Civic and Political Knowledge and Skills
Promoting students' critical and independent thinking
68
Developing students' skills and competencies in conflict resolution
54
Promoting knowledge of citizens' rights and responsibilities
41
Promoting knowledge of social, political, and civic institutions
23
ICCS categorizes aim as focused on developing students' Active Participation
Promoting students' participation in their community
35
Promoting students' participation in school life
13
Preparing students for future political engagement
5
ICCS categorizes aim as focused on developing students' Sense of Responsibility
Promoting respect for and safeguard of the environment
27
Supporting the development of effective strategies to reduce racism
20
Promoting the capacity to defend one's point of view
11

NOTES: This figure is based on the following survey item: What do you consider the most important aims of civic and citizenship education at school? Indicate three aims that in your opinion ought to be the most important (response choices are shown in the figure; n = 989). Each percentage includes teachers who selected the aim as among their top three choices. This question was taken from the 2016 International Civic and Citizenship Education Study Teacher Questionnaire (Köhler et al., 2018, Appendix A).

As with U.S. public school teachers' reports about how civic and citizenship education is provided at school, we identified some significant grade-level differences in their reported aims of civic and citizenship education. For example, secondary teachers more often than elementary teachers selected "promoting of knowledge of social, political, and civic institutions" as among their top three aims (27 percent versus 19 percent, respectively). Elementary teachers, meanwhile, more often chose aims that were aligned with building social and emotional skills or that were broader, such as "promoting respect for and safeguard of the environment," "developing students' skills and competencies in conflict resolution," and "promoting students' participation in school life." These data are in line with findings from Hamilton, Kaufman, and Hu (2020) indicating that elementary teachers more often emphasize topics related to social and emotional learning than their secondary counterparts.

Other school characteristics did not appear to be related to any meaningful differences in U.S. public school teachers' beliefs about the top aims of civic and citizenship education. Perhaps surprisingly, teachers' opinions about what topics should be emphasized as part of civic and citizenship education at school did not depend on whether they were a social science teacher.

Male and Female Teachers Had Different Beliefs About the Top Aims of Civic and Citizenship Education

Although teachers' beliefs about the top aims of civic and citizenship education varied little by most teacher and school characteristics, we observed some interesting differences when we parsed responses according to teacher gender. Both male and female teachers most often picked "promoting students' critical and independent thinking" as among their top aims of civic and citizenship education. From there, differences emerged in how male and female teachers perceived the most-important aims of civic and citizenship education, even after controlling for school demographics (including school grade level) and subject taught.[1] Specifically, more female teachers than male teachers selected "developing students' skills and competencies in conflict resolution" and "supporting the development of effective strategies to reduce racism" as among their top aims (see Figure 3). In contrast, male teachers more often selected "promoting knowledge of social, political, and civic institutions," and "promoting the capacity to defend one's point of view."

Figure 3. What Do Male and Female U.S. Public School Teachers Consider the Most Important Aims of Civic and Citizenship Education at School?

Female Male
Promoting students' critical and independent thinking 69% 65%
Promoting knowledge of citizens' rights and responsibilities 38% 48%
Promoting students' participation in their community 34% 41%
Developing students' skills and competencies in conflict resolution* 59% 40%
Promoting knowledge of social, political, and civic institutions* 20% 33%
Promoting the capacity to defend one's point of view* 8% 22%
Promoting respect for and safeguard of the environment 29% 20%
Promoting students' participation in school life 13% 12%
Supporting the development of effective strategies to reduce racism* 23% 11%
Preparing students for future political engagement 5% 7%

NOTES: This figure is based on the following survey item: What do you consider the most important aims of civic and citizenship education at school? Indicate three aims that in your opinion ought to be the most important (response choices are shown in the figure; n = 989). This question was taken from the 2016 International Civic and Citizenship Education Study Teacher Questionnaire (Köhler et al., 2018, Appendix A). An asterisk (*) indicates that the percentage of male teachers who indicated that an aim is among their top three aims is statistically significantly different (p < 0.05) from the percentage of female teachers who said similarly, after controlling for school demographics (including school grade level) and subject taught.

U.S. Public School Teachers Agreed with Their International Peers On Many of the Top Aims of Civic and Citizenship Education, Although Differing Survey Time Periods Limit Our Ability to Fully Tease Out Differences

Because the survey items we administered to U.S. public school teachers were drawn from ICCS, we are able to draw some comparisons between U.S. teachers and those from other countries. However, we urge caution when interpreting these findings for several reasons (see Box 2). That said, the samples themselves were relatively similar in terms of the types of teachers surveyed (that is, both samples include teachers of all subject areas and not just civics teachers), although, as we note in Box 2, ICCS focuses on schools serving eighth-grade students.[2] To address the discrepancy in grade levels in ICCS and our survey, we restricted our sample to U.S. middle school teachers when drawing comparisons with other countries. We did not have ample responses for only eighth-grade teachers. Furthermore, readers should keep in mind that many middle school teachers likely teach at more than one grade level, particularly in smaller schools. Unfortunately, we cannot address the discrepancy in survey timeframes. Nevertheless, we note that ICCS teachers' responses about the aims of civic and citizenship education in 2009 were relatively similar to their responses in 2016 (Schulz et al., 2010; Schulz, Ainley, et al., 2018), which might indicate that teachers' responses are relatively stable over time. The stability in teachers' beliefs about the top aims of civic and citizenship education over time increases our confidence in comparisons of U.S. teachers in 2021 with international teachers in 2016. Nonetheless, major social and political events that have occurred in the United States and other countries may have shifted perceptions about the aims of civic and citizenship education between 2016 (when ICCS teachers were surveyed) and 2021, when we surveyed U.S. public school teachers.

Keeping in mind these caveats, we find some evidence that U.S. public school teachers hold beliefs that are similar to their international peers: Like U.S. middle school teachers, teachers who participated in ICCS most often selected "promoting students' critical and independent thinking" and least often selected "preparing students for future political engagement" as among their top aims (Schulz, Ainley, et al., 2018, Table 2.9). However, we also identified some differences between teachers within and outside the United States regarding teachers' beliefs about the top aims of civic and citizenship education. For example, roughly half of the ICCS international teacher sample (51 percent) included "promoting respect for and safeguard of the environment" among their top three aims; only 22 percent of U.S. middle school teachers included this aim among their top three. Teachers who participated in ICCS also more often listed "promoting the capacity to defend one's point of view" and "promoting knowledge of citizen's rights and responsibilities" as among their top aims than did U.S. middle school teachers. In contrast, U.S. middle school teachers more often than their international counterparts included "promoting students' participation in their community" among their top three aims.

Implications

Our findings suggest two key implications and associated recommendations:

  1. U.S. students' experience with civic and citizenship education likely varies significantly depending on their school grade level, although readers should keep in mind that our survey questions ask about teachers' beliefs, not about their actual actions in the classroom. As described in this report, our survey indicated that secondary teachers were more likely than elementary teachers to say that civic and citizenship education is siloed into separate subject areas, and secondary teachers reported differing beliefs from those of elementary teachers about what topics should be emphasized. On the one hand, there are good reasons why schools' approach to civic and citizenship education and the specific aims teachers choose to emphasize might differ between the elementary and secondary grades. On the other hand, U.S. secondary students may be missing out on schoolwide experiences related to civic and citizenship education that are more commonly available at the elementary level. Elementary schools, and the teachers in them, might have more experience drawing connections to civic and citizenship education topics during instruction in other subjects. Given the observed differences by school level, it is possible that teachers from different grade levels might benefit from sharing their civic and citizenship education approaches with one another. Typically, professional learning opportunities bring together teachers at common grade levels, but this research suggests that teachers at the secondary level could benefit from understanding more about how elementary teachers weave civic and citizenship education into students' whole-school experiences. Similarly, elementary teachers might benefit from secondary teachers' explanations of how civic and citizenship education is addressed at higher grade levels, which could help in thinking about how to better integrate instruction on civic and citizenship skills that students might need at later grade levels.
  2. The observed similarities between U.S. public school teachers and ICCS teachers in their topmost aim for civic and citizenship education may suggest a common belief about the central role that a public education system has in promoting youths' civic and citizenship education. At the same time, we are unsure how to interpret the divergence between U.S. teachers and their international peers with regard to some civic and citizenship education aims. This divergence may reflect different values held by citizens of different countries and communities. Why were U.S. public school teachers less likely than those in other countries to believe that emphasizing respect for the environment was important? Conversely, why were U.S. public school teachers more concerned with developing students' participation in their community? What do these differences imply about the knowledge, skills, and dispositions of students who graduate from U.S. public schools compared with students in other countries? We do not yet have clear answers to these questions—especially given the limitations that we documented in using our teacher sample to draw concrete comparisons with ICCS—but they are worth considering. We could learn much more about the differences between school systems' approaches to civic and citizenship education—including their benefits and drawbacks—if more countries, including the United States, participated in international efforts like ICCS.

In our rapidly changing world, civic and citizenship education may yet be of greater focus and importance for the United States and other countries over the next few decades. For these and other reasons, we need much more information to understand how civic and citizenship education relates to the outcomes we would like to see for children in the United States and around the world.

References

Notes

  • [1] In our sample, male and female teachers were roughly equally likely to report teaching social science this school year. However, 80 percent of the male teachers in our sample were secondary teachers, compared with only 44 percent of female teachers.
  • [2] In most participating countries, the target grade was eighth grade or its equivalent. For more information about how target grade levels were determined, please see ICCS 2016: Technical Report (Schulz, Carstens, et al., 2018).

This report describes a subset of results from a November 2021 survey fielded through RAND's American Teacher Panel (ATP) to a sample of 1,003 teachers to learn about, among other topics, how civic and citizenship education is approached in U.S. public schools. The ATP is a nationally representative panel of U.S. public school teachers of kindergarten through 12th grade who were recruited using probability-based methods. The ATP is part of the American Educator Panels (AEP), which are nationally representative samples of teachers, school leaders, and district leaders across the country. The AEP is part of RAND Education and Labor, a division of the RAND Corporation that conducts research on early childhood through postsecondary education programs, workforce development, and programs and policies affecting workers, entrepreneurship, and financial literacy and decisionmaking.

This work is part of RAND's Truth Decay initiative (Kavanagh and Rich, 2018), which studies the diminishing role of facts and analysis in public life. Through this initiative, RAND has invited researchers and engaged stakeholders to find solutions that counter Truth Decay and the threat it poses to evidence-based policymaking. Questions about this report should be directed to mdiliber@rand.org.

RAND would like to recognize the Joel and Joanne Mogy Truth Decay Fellowship, established by the Mogys in 2020 to support research on Truth Decay, civics, and democracy. The authors drew from the Mogys' generous gift to fund this project.

We are extremely grateful to the U.S. public school educators who have agreed to participate in the American Educator Panels. Their time and willingness to share their experiences are invaluable for this effort and for helping us understand how to better support their hard work in schools. We also thank Laura Hamilton and Lauren Musu for helpful feedback that greatly improved this report, Arwen Bicknell for her editorial expertise, and Monette Velasco for overseeing the publication process for this report.

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