Educators recognize the need to prioritize civics education

Written by Derek Monson

September 30, 2022

The Utah Civic Learning Collaborative (UCLC) recently published a report on Utah civics teachers’ views about the current state of civics education in Utah. Some of the report’s findings, along with those of a Utah Valley University (UVU) survey of public school social studies educators in Utah, echo the results of a 2021 Sutherland Institute survey of teachers and parents: Improving civics education in Utah means reprioritizing civics in school curriculum and instruction.

Regarding Sutherland’s survey research, Sutherland education policy fellow Christine Fairbanks wrote:

Both teachers and parents believe teaching civics education is a high priority but say schools are not doing well in providing that education. Not surprisingly, a supermajority of teachers and parents seek to restore “a robust civics education in our public schools.”

Knowing that both parents and teachers place priority on civics education suggests a way forward. When the two groups of people closest to the needs of students – parents and teachers – also happen to be the two of the most powerful stakeholders in education, progress can be made.

UVU’s survey of teachers included a similar theme among elementary school educators charged with teaching Utah and U.S. history:

We asked teachers to agree or disagree with the statement, “Civics is being taught well at my school” (Figure 1). … Among elementary teachers, however, less than half (43%) somewhat or strongly agree that civics is being taught well at their schools. Although we did not explore why they answered this question as they did, it is likely that elementary teachers feel this way because they must cover a plethora of topics, many of which are less obviously about civics. Elementary teachers are also facing pressures to spend less time on social studies and civics and more on English Language Arts (ELA) and math.

The pressure to focus on ELA and math is also in line with Sutherland survey results. Both teachers and parents in Sutherland’s survey said that “civics education is a top three priority for subjects covered in K-12, along with math and English,” but “believe schools do not place a priority on teaching civics compared with other subjects. How civics is currently taught was rated significantly lower than how math and English are taught.”

Driving home these results from the Sutherland and UVU surveys, the UCLC report found:

Elementary teachers struggle to find enough time to cover civics. As generalists who need to cover multiple subjects in a compressed period of time, elementary teachers have little time for subjects like civics, and are hungry for fresh ideas on how to weave civics education into other core subjects, like language arts.

The UCLC report went further, asking teachers to respond to the question, “What is standing in the way of teaching civics the way you would like?” The answers from teachers reinforced what was noted in the UVU survey:

Much as educators would like to cover the promising practices of civics education, they are pressed for time in the school day. Subjects that are tested like STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) and reading always come first. Pressure from parents to sidestep controversy makes it difficult to prepare students for the messy sides of civic life.

In summary, three independent sources in Utah have sought over the past two years to understand the view of Utah educators regarding the state of civics education. All of them have reported a belief among teachers that civics is inadequately prioritized relative to subjects of comparable importance, such as math and language arts.

As policymakers and advocates continue to consider policy reforms around civic education, the view from those on the ground holds useful insight about what civics education reforms should accomplish. If civics education policy reforms lead public school districts, administrators and others to prioritize civics on a level comparable to subjects like math and language arts, the evidence from educator surveys suggests that improvement in civics education is likely. Otherwise, reforms may prove ineffective.

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