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Back to May Ed Reporter

Education Reporter
NUMBER 256 THE NEWSPAPER OF EDUCATION RIGHTS May 2007

The Coming Crisis in American Citizenship: Higher Education’s Failure To Teach America’s History and Institutions — Executive Summary

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By the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, American Civic Literacy Program

Today's college students, our nation's future leaders, must understand their nation's history and founding principles if they are to be informed and engaged citizens. They need to understand not only the fundamental institutions and ideals that defined the American founding, but also the more than two centuries of debate and struggle through which Americans have worked out their unique identity as a people. In addition, in this post-9/11 era, it is increasingly necessary that students understand America's relationship to the rest of the world.

The Coming Crisis in Citizenship: Higher Education's Failure to Teach America's History and Institutions presents scientific evidence that, for the very first time, reveals how much American colleges and universities - including some of our most elite schools - add to, or subtract from, their graduates' understanding of America's history and fundamental institutions. Commissioned by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI), the present study represents the culmination of a multiyear research process involving a team of professors experienced in the classroom, ISI's National Civic Literacy Board, and the University of Connecticut's Department of Public Policy.

In the fall of 2005, the University of Connecticut's Department of Public Policy (UConnDPP) was contracted by ISI to undertake the largest statistically valid survey ever conducted to determine what colleges and universities are teaching their students about America's history and institutions. UConnDPP asked more than 14,000 randomly selected college freshmen and seniors at 50 colleges and universities across the country 60 multiple-choice questions in order to measure their knowledge in four subject areas: (1) American history; (2) government; (3) America and the world; and (4) the market economy. Taken together, students' answers to these questions provide a high-resolution image of the state of learning about America's history and institutions on campuses throughout the nation. The results are far from encouraging. In fact, they constitute nothing less than a coming crisis in American citizenship.

This report presents four key findings:

FINDING 1: America's colleges and universities fail to increase knowledge about America's history and institutions.

  • Seniors scored just 1.5 percent higher on average than freshmen.
  • If the survey were administered as an exam in a college course, seniors would fail with an overall average score of 53.2 percent, or F on a traditional grading scale.
  • Though a university education can cost upwards of $200,000, and college students on average leave campus $19,300 in debt, they are no better off than when they arrived in terms of acquiring the knowledge necessary for informed engagement in a democratic republic and global economy.

FINDING 2: Prestige doesn't pay off.

  • Colleges that rank high in the U.S. News and World Report 2006 ranking were ranked low in the ISI ranking of learning in these key fields. Specifically, a 1 percent increase in civic learning as measured in our survey corresponded to a decrease of 25 positions in the U.S. News ranking.
  • There is no relationship between the cost of attending a college and students' acquired understanding of America's history and key institutions. Students at relatively inexpensive colleges often learn more, on average, than their counterparts at expensive colleges.
  • At many colleges, including Brown, Georgetown, and Yale, seniors know less than freshmen about America's history, government, foreign affairs, and economy. We characterize this phenomenon as "negative learning." A majority of the 16 schools where senior scores were actually lower than freshman scores are considered to be among the most prestigious colleges in the United States.

FINDING 3: Students don't learn what colleges don't teach.

  • Student learning about America's history and institutions decreases when fewer courses are taken in history, political science, government, and economics.
  • Schools where students took more courses in American history, political science, and economics outperformed those schools where fewer courses were completed.
  • Civic learning is significantly greater at schools that require students to take courses in American history, political science, and economics. Student knowledge in these key areas improves significantly at colleges that still value excellent teaching in the classroom.

FINDING 4: Greater civic learning goes hand-in-hand with more active citizenship.

  • Students who demonstrated greater learning of America's history and institutions were more engaged in citizenship activities such as voting, volunteer community service, and political campaigns.

RECOMMENDATIONS

The report concludes with five recommendations aimed at improving undergraduate learning about America's history and institutions:

  • improve the assessment of learning outcomes at the college and university level;
  • increase the number of required history, political science, and economics courses;
  • hold higher education more accountable to its mission and fundamental responsibility to prepare its students to be informed, engaged participants in a democratic republic;
  • better inform students and their parents, public officials, and taxpayers of a given university's performance in teaching America's history and institutions; and
  • build academic centers on campuses to encourage and support the restoration of teaching American history, political science, and economics.

ISI offers this report with the hope that it will stimulate corrective action and accountability among those immediately responsible for higher education - trustees, donors, alumni, parents, public officials, administrators, faculty, and students. It is still possible to improve the teaching at our colleges and universities of America's history and institutions, and thereby to forestall the coming crisis in citizenship.


 
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