Teachers Are Trusted Guardians of Our Democracy

by Shawn P. Healy, PhD, Democracy Program Director

Civics teachers are guardians of our democracy, the most trusted source for information on civic education according to new survey data from Frank Luntz, notable Republican pollster. Moreover, Americans of all political stripes see civic education as the most positive and impactful lever to strengthen national identity.
These findings contradict recent claims by President Trump on Constitution Day at the White House Conference on American History:

The left-wing rioting and mayhem are the direct result of decades of left-wing indoctrination in our schools. It’s gone on far too long. Our children are instructed from propaganda tracts…that try to make students ashamed of their own history. The left has warped, distorted, and defiled the American story with deceptions, falsehoods, and lies.

Previous empirical research suggests that social studies teachers’ political affiliations and ideologies are reflective of the communities they serve, that they grapple with the tension between teaching patriotism and empowering students to “build a more perfect union,” and most make a pedagogical decision not to disclose their political beliefs to students.

According to a 2010 American Enterprise Institute (AEI) survey of more than 1,000 high school social studies teachers, 32% self-identified as Republican versus 51% as Democrats, with 12% declaring themselves independent and 5% “something else.” These percentages mirrored national averages at the time, with social studies teachers slightly less likely to affiliate with the two major parties and significantly more likely to be independents. Moreover, my analysis of Education Week’s 2017 survey of teachers and school administrators found that educators form an ideological bell curve, with a strong plurality (43%) claiming “moderate” views and an even split between conservatives (23%) and liberals (24%).

Building on the 2010 AEI Study, the RAND Corporation replicated a battery of teacher survey questions in 2019 called “the twelve concepts of citizenship.” In both surveys, social studies teachers overwhelmingly (two-thirds or more) consider the following “absolutely essential”: “tolerance of people and groups other than themselves”; “good work habits such as being timely, persistent, and hardworking”; “embrac(ing) the responsibilities of citizenship such as voting and jury duty”; and “identify(ing) the protections guaranteed by the Bill of Rights.” In contrast, only 37% in both surveys voiced similar support for “students as activists who challenge the status quo of our political system and seek to remedy injustice.”

Finally, my own qualitative research demonstrates that teachers and administrators are decidedly guarded about sharing their own political views with students. The vast majority (80%) are comfortable modeling civic engagement by voting, volunteering, and paying attention to the news, for example, but are reticent to disclose their party affiliation, candidate preferences, or political views on controversial issues. Twelve percent of teachers and administrators I interviewed are “very candid” in disclosing their views, but do so responsibly in my judgement, making space for students to disagree and creating a safe environment for classroom discussion.

If there is bias in our civic education system, it is the tendency to marginalize civics and the social studies more generally in favor of tested subjects like math and English Language Arts. Thankfully, Illinois’ new middle and high school civics course requirements help reverse this trend, and embrace structured engagement with “current and societal issues.” Moreover, Illinois’ K-12 social science standards emphasize deliberative skills as part of student inquiry across subject areas (civics, economics, geography, and history).

Illinois’ social studies teachers are therefore professionally obligated to bring controversy into the classroom and model democratic discourse. Early evidence suggests that teachers are delivering on this commitment. A Spring 2018 survey of high school students who took a required civics course were more likely to say they discussed current events and controversial issues, learned about societal issues they cared about, and were encouraged to consider multiple views on controversial issues. Students also reported feeling safer expressing opinions after taking civics and a greater sense of responsibility for attentiveness to state and local issues.

These promising results underscore the pathway provided by civic education to restore an increasingly fractured and polarized American identity, with teachers serving as trusted guardians of our democracy.


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