K-8 Civic Learning
Why do Americans perform so poorly on the citizenship test? A mere lack of exposures is not the problem: as of 2019, 45 states & D.C. require U.S. history in elementary school, and 39 states & D.C. require it in middle school. In high school, that number becomes 42 states plus D.C. This dashboard dives into the NAEP Civics Assessment from 2018, using civics as an approximation of trends in teaching constitutionally-relevant knowledge, presuming that U.S. history and civics courses are where most students are exposed to constitutional history and principles. A summary of this research shows that while American students receive ample teaching in US history and civics, the level of knowledge and understanding has remained low for over 100 years. One study points to a different problem: a lack of effective engagement with the material. Results also show very low levels of confidence in constitutional knowledge and federalism in particular.
How Eighth-Grade Students Performed in Civics
NAEP Report Card: Civics 1998-2018
The NAEP surveyed about 13,400 students in grade eight for the 2018 "Nation's Report Card" civics assessment. The authors compared student performance from 2018 to the results from 2014 and 1998. They found that although "lower-performing students were making gains," overall there was "no significant change in the average civics score...compared to 2014."
Why this measure?
Teachers with primary responsibility for civics education produce better results
What might explain the stagnation of civic scores for the last two decades? One common target for blame is a lack of focused educators. The 2018 NAEP Report Card found that very few instructors of 8th-grade civics or history have this as a primary teaching responsibility.
To what extent is this a problem? The same study examined whether students with teachers whose primary responsibility it was to teach civics fared better. The authors found that students whose teachers had a primary responsibility for teaching civics scored slightly higher (average 159) than those whose teachers did not have a primary responsibility for teaching civics (average 153). While not a panacea, it seems that we gain some benefit from having teachers whose main focus is civics.
Confidence in Constitutional Knowledge
Students lack confidence in their level of understanding
In the same report, eighth grade students were asked to report on their confidence in "demonstrating civics [or] U.S. government-related knowledge and skills." For example, students were asked whether they believed they could explain the roles and functions of the three branches of government. They were also asked to self-report how confident they were in their ability to describe the rights and responsibilities of U.S. citizens. The researchers created an index to illustrate confidence. The chart below illustrates the results: 3/4 of eighth graders report low to moderate confidence in basic Constitutional and U.S. government knowledge and skills in 2018:
5% more students reported having low confidence in their ability to explain the roles and functions of the branches of the federal government or explain the rights and responsibilities of U.S. citizens. While this is not a seriously bad result, it does skew toward the lower end of the scale.
*note: Grade 8 NAEP civics assessment questions were not released to the public. Samples can be found here.
Looking at structural protections at a young age
What about knowledge of federalism and structural protections? Our analysis shows that 2 of 6 questions on the Confidence survey directly addressed understanding of structure (separation of powers) and federalism. Students were asked to rate their confidence in being able to "explain the roles and functions of the three branches of the United States government," and "compare the roles and responsibilities of local, state and national government in the United States."
Unfortunately, the answers to these questions are not individually available, and so we cannot draw any direct comparisons from their answers. While we would benefit from a breakdown of the above confidence survey, and further research is needed, it is safe to assume that confidence in federalism knowledge is equally low, compared to other forms of civic knowledge.
"I Don't Remember"
One of the most revealing findings from the NAEP civics survey, and one that is echoed in other surveys of older populations, is the percent of students who simply don't remember receiving civics education in a particular grade. In 2018, NAEP asked eighth graders if they had civics during sixth grade. Overall results showed that 61% of grade eight students either did not take civics, or did not remember taking civics, in grade 6. In fact, the responses "No, I did not take" and "I don't remember" are the two largest categories in all but private Catholic schools.
What conclusions can we draw from a group of 8th graders who don't remember a class they may or may not have taken two years prior? Common sense tells us not to be surprised at the memory and priorities of 13 and 14 year old students. But it does connect them to a larger trend. As we will see later in this dashboard, Americans of all ages recall very little of the content or timeline of their civic education.
Doing it Wrong?
Reimagining American History Education
In 2019, the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation published a report seeking to answer the question of why Americans perform so poorly on the U.S. citizenship test. The assessment addressed four primary questions:
Are students required to study American history?
Are teachers prepared to teach American history?
Are current curriculum and instruction effective?
Has knowledge of American history declined?
Their research puts the usual 'doom and gloom' of U.S. civic education into perspective. It reveals that although we do perform poorly on tests like the U.S. citizenship exam, we are not in decline; our performance has been stable for for a century. In fact, in large scale studies in 1917, 1943, and 1976, and every NAEP U.S. History test, the average score for American students was a failing grade.
However grim this data may be, it does not support the idea that the fault lies in a lack of exposure or teacher qualification. In fact, the amount of history and civics teaching has increased dramatically in the last 50 years. In addition, the teachers who teach it are thoroughly qualified in both the focus of their education (30% of primary instructors certified in history and another 50% in social studies education; 83% of high school social science instructors are likewise certified), and the depth of that education (51% of teachers with a primary history teaching assignment hold a master's degree, 47% a bachelors, and 5% at least a minor).
Ultimately, they concluded that the problem with U.S. history and civic education is not how much we teach, or who does the teaching. It is how the subject is being taught. We focus too much on memorization of names and dates, and not enough on helping students engage with a subject that requires engagement.
Daniel J. Elazar, Exploring Federealism
Robert Higgs, Crisis and Leviathan
David B. Walker, The Rebirth of Federalism
David Brian Robertson, Federalism and the Making of America