An Interview with Elizabeth Mann Levesque and Jon Valant: Brookings’ 2018 Brown Center Report on American Education

Jul 2, 2018 by

An Interview with Elizabeth Mann Levesque and Jon Valant: Brookings’ 2018 Brown Center Report on American Education

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

1) In general, why should we be looking at the social studies and civics as key academic elements?

In recent decades, education policy in the U.S. reflects an unfortunately narrow view of the purposes of schooling.  We have tended to emphasize core academic subjects in hopes that schools will prepare students for career success, with test-based accountability systems that put enormous emphasis on math and reading performance.  Teaching math and reading (and preparing workers) is important, but it’s not all that schools can or should do.  More than any other public institution, schools are charged with helping students to become engaged, informed, and compassionate citizens.  That requires more than just teaching literacy and numeracy.

This is a difficult time in American political life, and many Americans are worried about the state of our democracy and whether we are equipping (and have equipped) people with the civic knowledge, skills, and dispositions that the country needs.  Of course, schools aren’t solely responsible for that work, but we believe they can do more in this area than we have asked them to do.

2) What were some of the basics of your recent report?

Chapter 1 explores trends in student performance on NAEP assessments from the late 1990s through the most recent year in which results are available (2014 in civics). Key findings include:

  • Scores on NAEP civics assessments remained steady or climbed slightly from 1998 through the most recent assessment (despite social studies not featuring prominently in NCLB testing requirements).
  • There are wide and persistent gaps by race, ethnicity, and income on the 8th-grade civics assessment. As of 2014, the white-black gap was 0.83 SD, the income gap (based on FRL eligibility) was 0.82 SD, and the white-Hispanic gap was 0.71 SD. These gaps equate to multiple years of academic learning.
  • The size of these gaps is disconcerting. Civic participation affords political power, and broad participation is essential for a healthy, inclusive democracy.
  • By historical standards, recent U.S. education policy has focused narrowly on student performance in core academic subjects, specifically math and reading. ESSA, which replaced NCLB in 2015, has the potential to change that.

Chapter 2 contains a rigorous 50-state inventory of state policy, which illustrates the extent to which states have incorporated best practices into their civics education requirements. The authors also examine student survey data to determine whether or not student experiences reflect those policies. Key findings include:

  • 42 states plus D.C. require at least one course related to civics education as a high school graduation requirement. Most states require two or three.
  • Fewer states (26 plus D.C.) have incorporated participatory elements of learning or community engagement, such as mock trials, into their standards.
  • This is a concern given the sentiment among civics education experts that a high-quality civics education is incomplete without teaching students what civic participation looks like in practice and how citizens can engage in their communities.
  • 63% of 12th-grade students report discussing current events on at least a weekly basis. However, only 24% report taking part in debates or panel discussions on a weekly basis, while 31% report never participating in this type of activity.

Chapter 3 presents statistics on the demographics, qualifications, responsibilities, compensation, and satisfaction of social studies teachers in secondary grades and reveals that they differ from other subject-specialized teachers in many ways. Key findings include:

  • Well over half (58%) of social studies teachers are male, compared to 41% of natural science teachers, 38% of math teachers, and 20% of ELA teachers.
  • Social studies teachers disproportionately take on responsibilities outside of the classroom, including coaching. 35% report having coaching responsibilities (vs. 23% of natural science teachers, 21% of math teachers, and 15% of ELA teachers). The authors demonstrate that the difference in coaching rates is not entirely due to the overrepresentation of male teachers in the social sciences.
  • These differences across subjects could be an indirect consequence of test-based accountability pressures differing across subjects,” the authors posit. “In any case, these patterns suggest schools may often be looking for candidates that can fill multiple roles beyond the classroom when hiring social studies teachers, which seems less the case for vacancies in other subjects.
  • Despite several differences, social studies teachers are similar to other teachers on a number of dimensions, including teachers’ age and experience levels, course load, working hours, and satisfaction with their school.

3) Social Studies teachers seem to bear the brunt of instruction- yet have many after school duties and obligations and responsibilities. Any insights into this?

We found that social studies teachers take on more responsibilities outside of the classroom than teachers of other subjects. They report high levels of involvement in extracurricular student activities (70 percent, 7 percentage points more than the next-highest subject, natural sciences). This includes 35 percent of social studies teachers reporting that they have coaching responsibilities—a much higher percentage than for teachers in the natural sciences (23 percent), math (21 percent), and ELA (15 percent). They are also among the highest in the share who take on extra school duties (61 percent).

These differences across subjects could be an indirect consequence of test-based accountability pressures differing across subjects. Teachers in subjects emphasized by NCLB and now ESSA might be compelled to work more intensively in their specialties, leaving teachers in other subjects like social studies to extend the reach of their duties beyond their subject specialty. This also could have implications for who is drawn to enter—and remain in—the profession. In any case, these patterns suggest that schools may often be looking for candidates that can fill multiple roles beyond the classroom when hiring social studies teachers, which seems less the case for vacancies in other subjects.

4) Often social studies encompasses economics, geography, political science and other realms. Is this a good or bad thing? 

In addition to civics-focused classes, instruction related to other areas of social studies, such as geography and history, can contribute to a well-rounded civics education. The knowledge and skills that students gain in other social studies courses can bolster their understanding of American government and democracy. This is not to say that other social studies courses are effective substitutes for a standalone civics course.

For example, Washington state recently passed a law to mandate a standalone civics course, noting that allowing civics learning standards to be incorporated into other courses can result in the civics content being diluted or ignored (see the text of the law here). Overall, civics courses are important, as are courses in other areas of social studies. How states ensure that students receive a well-rounded social studies education varies, as you can see in the different types of social studies high school graduation requirements that states have adopted.

5) What tools do students need to become active involved citizens in the next decade?

As the report discusses, students need a core set of civics knowledge, skills, and dispositions to participate constructively in American politics. Our key takeaway from research on civics education practices is that while knowledge certainly matters (e.g., facts and information about U.S. government), teaching students facts is insufficient to prepare them to engage effectively as citizens. Schools also need to help students develop skills (e.g., how to vote, express opinions to elected representatives, and engage in productive debate on controversial topics) and civic dispositions (like a sense of civic duty). This means that curricula should incorporate opportunities for students to develop these skills and dispositions. Inside the classroom, students may practice engaging in democratic procedures through debates, mock trials, elections, and more. It is also important to give students meaningful opportunities to engage in civic life as part of their formal education. Building civic participation into coursework through service learning is one way to do this (see the National Youth Leadership Council standards for service learning here). The Action Civics approach is another example of this type of curriculum (see more on Action Civics here).

6) Everyone seems to indicate that our students need more of this, more of that etc. Do we need to lengthen the school day or year? Or was that not even explored or examined?

This is a good point, and we didn’t explicitly examine that question in this report (beyond arguing that education policy has focused perhaps too much on math and reading performance).  If you are interested in questions about the effects of extending the school day or school year, the journal Education Finance and Policy just published a related study:

7) School shootings- how do they impact exactly what is taught in civics and social studies?

It’s hard to know.  We’ve heard anecdotes of teachers taking an issue that is obviously on many students’ minds and using it to teach about political participation and the policymaking process.  Those are just anecdotes, though, and we don’t know of cases in which these shootings have shaped curriculum or standards or policies that affect what students learn in the classroom.

We do suspect, however, that politics and current events are on students’ minds as much as they have been at any time in recent history.  Civics and social studies teachers might be finding themselves with students today who see how politics and current events can affect their lives—and want to learn what to do about it.

8) Currently, we seem to have a quite divided country. How much emphasis should teachers be putting on current events?  Are there dangerous realms in civics and social studies?

Questions about the social studies curriculum can become very controversial.  For example, we often see disputes over how to teach subjects like evolution, the Civil War, and climate change.  (Michigan, in fact, is arguing about this type of thing right now.)  However, most of what schools can do to develop students’ civic knowledge, skills, and dispositions shouldn’t be controversial to anyone.  For example, schools can teach students to seek out opinions different from their own, carefully assess the information they receive, vote, and try to see issues and policies from others’ perspectives.  There is nothing inherently Democratic or Republican in that type of teaching — it is just about equipping students for constructive participation in American society and political life.

9) Is there a way to read the report on line?

The report is available online for free to everyone at the following link:

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