Cover: Preparing Children and Youth for Civic Life in the Era of Truth Decay

Preparing Children and Youth for Civic Life in the Era of Truth Decay

Insights from the American Teacher Panel

Published Dec 8, 2020

by Laura S. Hamilton, Julia H. Kaufman, Lynn Hu


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Research Questions

  1. What practices do social studies teachers and schools enact to promote students' development?
  2. What conditions do teachers perceive as supporting or hindering their civic education practices?
  3. What civic-related student behaviors are social studies teachers observing?
  4. How do these practices, conditions, and student behaviors vary across teachers serving different student populations or working in different school contexts?

Public schools that serve students in kindergarten through grade 12 are responsible for not only promoting students' readiness for college and careers but also educating students to engage civically and contribute to their communities and country as adults. Civic education refers broadly to the process through which schools and other institutions help students develop knowledge, skills, and dispositions that will prepare them for civic life. Researchers conducted a nationally representative survey of elementary (kindergarten through 5th grade) and secondary (6th through 12th grade) teachers offering social studies in U.S. public schools. Results from this survey demonstrate how social studies teachers in U.S. public schools promote students' civic learning, teachers' beliefs about the importance of civic-related topics and skills, and which conditions they perceive as supporting or hindering civic education. This report, which is part of the Truth Decay initiative, extends analyses presented in other reports in the series.

Key Findings

Teachers were asked about emphasis placed on civic-related activities and approaches inside and outside the classroom

  • Elementary social studies teachers were less likely than secondary teachers to indicate an emphasis on practices explicitly related to civic education, although they did report similar emphasis to secondary teachers on social and emotional learning, climate, and conflict resolution.

Researchers examined additional aspects of teachers' perceptions and experiences that might influence their decisions about what to teach and how to teach it

  • Most social studies teachers reported not feeling well prepared to support students' civic development.
  • Although the majority of social studies teachers indicated that students' civic development was important, fewer indicated that it was an "absolutely essential priority."

Teachers described ways in which their instructional materials, assessments, and other conditions supported or hindered their efforts to promote students' civic development

  • Most teachers 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.
  • Pressure to cover other subjects was widely reported as an obstacle to civic education.

Teachers also described observable student behaviors related to civic development

  • Teachers reported problematic student behaviors related to media use, such as making unfounded claims based on unreliable media sources and partaking in an unhealthy amount of media use.
  • Incidents in which students made derogatory comments about, or engaged in demeaning behaviors toward, other students were more-frequently tied to political views than to other group characteristics, such as race or ethnicity.


  • Policymakers and others who support schools should explore ways to reduce inequities in civic learning opportunities across schools serving more- and less-vulnerable student populations. Teachers should receive training, encouragement, and supports for enacting practices that promote civic development, especially at the elementary level. Teachers could especially benefit from both formal and informal opportunities to gather ideas on how to emphasize civic development in their classrooms.
  • A more-diverse teacher workforce could enhance students' civic learning opportunities, but there is a need to ensure that teachers of color receive adequate instructional supports for civics instruction.
  • Teachers need additional instructional materials to promote the full menu of civic skills, knowledge, and dispositions and to provide instruction that is culturally relevant and meets the needs of all their students, particularly English-language learners.
  • Policy supports, such as standards and curriculum flexibility, could create environments that are more conducive to civic education.
  • Teachers need strategies to address student partisanship and misuse of media.

Funding for this research was provided by unrestricted gifts from RAND supporters and income from operations.

This report is part of the RAND research report series. RAND reports present research findings and objective analysis that address the challenges facing the public and private sectors. All RAND reports undergo rigorous peer review to ensure high standards for research quality and objectivity.

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