The AEI Report on High School Social Studies: Our Review of the Findings

For the past year, the Neighborhood has railed about the attack on social studies by those in the education establishment. 

Last week, a new report has data to back our claims—and its coming from an unlikely source.

Few people would peg the American Enterprise Institute as anti-establishment—unless that establishment was driving a hybrid, collecting welfare checks, having gay intercourse, aborting babies and growing funny crops in a hydroponics lab in the basement.  The conservative DC think-tank counts among its fellows Newt Gingrich, Paul Wolfowitz, John Bolton and Lynn Cheney: hardly a bunch that would rock the boat.

AEI’s education team, furthermore, is certainly no rabble-rousers, either.  It’s headed by Frederick Hess, who’s a good buddy of my favorite educational dictator, Michelle Rhee.  He also co-directs AEI’s Future of American Education Project, which involves Rhee and KIPP cofounder Michael Feinberg—what do they chant at the beginning of those meetings, Mike?

Yet amongst little fanfare, AEI’s Program on American Citizenship has recently released a report titled High Schools, Civics, and Citizenship: What Social Studies Teachers Think and Do. In it, researchers Steve Farkas and Ann Duffett studied high schools and teachers and reported essentially on the state of social studies in this country.  While their findings on content seem self-serving—especially in assessing attitudes towards American society and government—their view of social studies as a subject is spot on.

It is a disturbing picture, yet it gives credence to what we have been saying for years: social studies is suffering in America thanks to the NCLB establishment.

Farkas and Duffett studied a national random sample survey of 866 public high school social studies teachers, 245 Catholic and private school social studies teachers, and three focus groups.  Naysayers would point out that social studies teachers hardly constitute an unbiased data group on the subject.  Yet they are the ones most involved, most invested—and most attuned to the deficiencies in their subject area.

The strongest areas of the study are the findings about social studies writ large, about student learning, and standards of content knowledge.

In terms of the subject as a whole, the study backs up our claims.  45% of teachers say their school district treats socials studies as “an absolutely essential subject area.” This is opposed to 43% whose districts considered it unessential, or “important” at best.  45% claim their curriculum has been downgraded due directly to NCLB pressure, although 39% claim to be “holding their own”.  Even more disturbing, 70% of teachers say that social studies classes are of a lower priority due to the pressure of statewide math and language arts tests—even though 93% of teachers want social studies to be assessed in the same way.

Furthermore, these finding are not homogenous to all schools.  68% of private school social studies teachers feel that social studies is considered essential, as opposed to 45% of public school teachers.  Private school teachers also claim to have more control over the pace and content of their curriculum (86%), as well as a more nurturing school atmosphere for the subject.

(Wait a minute, aren’t private schools also subject to NCLB pressures?  What gives?)

The quality of teaching and learning is also of concern, according to the study.  Only 20% of teachers, and 36% of students, value the teaching of facts, dates and major events as an essential part of social studies instruction.  Only 56% of teachers can state that their students have carefully read the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.  64% value teaching the intricacies of the federal government, such as checks and balances, federalism, etc.  63% find knowledge of historical periods important.   Even though the current trend is toward understanding concepts and ideas in social studies, they are difficult to understand without the meat of facts, dates and events.

What’s more, we may not even be sure students are learning.  No more than 24% of teachers say they are “very confident” that their students will graduate knowing all they need to know about social studies to continue to higher education or the working world.

So on a macro scale, the Farkas and Duffett report paint a bleak picture of a subject under assault from an education establishment bent on testing progress, where teachers have lost focus of essential knowledge and students lack concrete understanding.

We knew this already.  The charts and numbers help our cause, though.

What doesn’t help is the study’s assessment of teacher attitudes and values, as well as the criteria for social studies knowledge.  The AEI education team bases knowledge of social studies on what they call the Twelve Concept s of Citizenship, which are:

  • To identify the protections guaranteed by the Bill of Rights
  • To have good work habits such as being timely, persistent, and hardworking
  • To embrace the responsibilities of citizenship such as voting and jury duty
  • To be tolerant of people and groups who are different from themselves
  • To understand concepts such as federalism, separation of powers, and checks and balances
  • To be knowledgeable about periods such as the American Founding, the Civil War, and the Cold War
  • To follow rules and be respectful of authority
  • To see themselves as global citizens living in an interconnected world
  • To understand economic principles such as supply and demand and the role of market incentives
  • To develop habits of community service such as volunteering and raising money for causes
  • To be activists who challenge the status quo of our political system and seek to remedy injustices
  • To know facts (e.g., location of the fifty states) and dates (e.g., Pearl Harbor) (AEI Report, Appendix 2)

The problem, of course, is that this basket of items is both too broad and too narrow.  While knowing about the Bill of Rights is important, it could be folded into a larger standard about American citizenship and responsibility.   Some of these are so broad that they lack any meaning. To know facts and dates?  What facts and dates?   To be knowledgeable about different historical periods is okay, but you list three periods that are already broad without including the rest, which is just as important and also pretty hefty in it of itself.

Also, some of these tenets are just dripping with ideology.  Conservatives love law and order, we know that.  Most people, in fact, prefer a safe and secure society.  But there’s a better way to word such sentiments without sounding like a 50’s principal with a crew-cut and tortoise-shell glasses.  Good luck teaching inner-city kids, or any adolescents for that matter, to “follow rules and be respectful of authority.”  My kids would likely hurl you out the window.

The same ideological bent pervades the questions about teacher attitudes and values.  One finding was that 83% of teachers believe that the United States is a “unique country that stands for something special in the world.” 76% say that high school should impart respect for military service, and 82% think it is important for students to “respect and appreciate their country but know its shortcomings.”

These numbers, by the way, align almost perfectly to the attitudes of ordinary Americans.  Glad to know teachers are normal, loyal patriots and not the bomb-throwing, lazy Bolsheviks that are depicted by some members of (gasp!) AEI itself.

None of the values studied are particularly galling, at least to me.  Our servicemen and women should be respected, and few would argue that teaching American history must include diverse points of view.  I’m even an advocate of American exceptionalism, to an extent.  Yet if you look at the questions about attitudes and values, one could surmise that the questions were crafted to elicit certain responses.  Like our students, the format and the content/context of the questions shape the data we receive from them.

So the AEI report isn’t perfect.  Maybe they got so wrapped up in progressive education that they forgot to be neo-cons.  Or maybe AEI head Arthur Brooks warned Farkas and Duffett that they better tack right if they know what’s good for them (just ask David Frum).

Regardless of the ideological bent, the report still has value as a window on the sorry state of social studies in this country.  Amongst America’s public schools, social studies is being downgraded more and more, thrown into the pyre as a sacrifice to the gods of scan-tron sheets and number 2 pencils.  Students are lacking even the basic underpinnings of our history and government, even as they leave high school eligible to vote—a frightening prospect indeed.

Which leads me to an essential question, in fact the essential question of the study: “What are teachers trying to teach our youth about citizenship and what it means to be an American?”

My answer: Whatever fits into the pitiful 45-minute block in between assessments and test prep.

1 Comment

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One response to “The AEI Report on High School Social Studies: Our Review of the Findings

  1. Inofamrtion is power and now I’m a !@#$ing dictator.

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