Student Views of Democracy

The Good and Bad News


Carole L. Hahn

For the most part, U.S. ninth graders are well on their way to being knowledgeable, caring, engaged citizens when compared to their peers internationally. That is the good news. The bad news is that within this generally positive picture, some groups of students consistently perform poorly on tests of civic knowledge. Furthermore, sizable numbers of young people are not supportive of democratic principles in particular contexts. But there are a number of ways in which social studies instruction in the United States can be improved to better prepare youth for citizenship in a global age.


Civic Knowledge and Social Studies

This mixed picture of student views of democracy emerges from the recent international study of young people’s civic knowledge, attitudes, and experiences conducted under the auspices of the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA). First, the good news: on the overall IEA test of civic knowledge, U.S. students performed above the international mean.1 Moreover, U.S. students did exceptionally well on the items that measured such skills as the ability to comprehend political messages, interpret political cartoons, and distinguish fact from opinion. On the civic skills subscale of the IEA test, U.S. students scored significantly higher than did students in the other participating countries. For example, 83 percent of U.S. students could correctly interpret a political leaflet, compared to 65 percent internationally. On the subscale measuring knowledge of content, U.S. students did not differ from the international average. For example, the percentage of U.S. students who understood the function of political parties (72 percent) was close to the international average of 75 percent.

Along with their peers in 27 other countries, a nationally representative sample of 2,811 U.S. ninth graders were assessed in October 1999 on their civic knowledge (including content and skills), concepts, attitudes, and experiences. In addition, a school administrator in each of the 124 public and private schools that the students attended completed a school questionnaire. Data from those questionnaires make up the second phase of a two-phase study of civic education.2

In the first phase of the research, case studies of civic education were developed for each of the participating countries.3 The U.S. case study provides a context for the findings in Phase 2.4 For example, we found that most fourteen-year-olds in the United States are not likely to have had a specific course in civics or government. Nevertheless, U.S. ninth graders are likely to have acquired considerable information about democracy and democratic institutions from elementary and middle school social studies lessons about the nation’s political history and about the structure and function of government. That point was reinforced in Phase 2, in which 70 percent of ninth graders reported studying the U.S. Constitution and Congress at some time over the previous year.5 Of course, social studies lessons are not the only means by which youth acquire ideas about democracy and citizenship. But they are important.

Students who reported studying social studies almost daily performed better on the three achievement measures—overall knowledge and the subscales measuring civic skills and content—than did students who studied social studies only twice a week or less.6 That is important when we consider that only 65 percent of the ninth graders reported studying social studies almost daily. In some states and numerous districts, social studies is not required every year that students are in school. Indeed, only 55 percent of the principals reported that a civic-related subject, such as social studies, was required of ninth graders. In another study, researchers found that only 17 percent of students take a course specifically in civics or government in the ninth grade.7


Social Inequities

Troubling findings from the IEA civic education (CivEd) study indicate that a student’s socioeconomic class and race or ethnicity matter in learning about democracy and democratic principles. Students who attend schools in which more than 25 percent of their students are eligible for the free and reduced lunch program did less well on the achievement measures (skills, content, and overall knowledge) than did students in schools with fewer than 25 percent of their students eligible for the program. Performance on the test was related also to home literacy resources and parents’ education. That is, students who came from homes with many books and a daily newspaper (a proxy for socioeconomic level), as well as students whose parents completed more years of school, did better on the test than did students without those resources. Additionally, ninth graders who had high expectations for their own continued education did well on the CivEd assessment. That is, students who expected to complete eight or more years of school (presumably, completing college) did better than did those who expected to drop out of high school or end their formal schooling at high school graduation.8 Similarly, in reviewing the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) in civics, researchers have repeatedly concluded that socioeconomic variables are associated with civic achievement.9

Race and ethnicity are also related to civic achievement. White and multiracial students scored higher, on average, than did black and Hispanic students on CivEd’s three measures of civic knowledge.10 In addition, Asian students scored higher than did black students on the three measures and higher than did Hispanics on the content subscale. These findings, like those on socioeconomic status, are consistent with findings from NAEP.11

In a nation that prides itself in valuing “justice and equality for all,” these findings should be of great concern. Although schools cannot carry the full responsibility for overcoming economic and racial inequalities, there is much they can do. And there is much that social studies educators in particular can do. In focus-group interviews with teachers for the Phase 1 case study, it was apparent that the quality of social studies instruction provided to students varies by the socioeconomic level of the local community. In schools in urban areas serving large numbers of students from low-income families and students of color, social studies is often characterized as “drill-and-kill.”

Ironically, out of a genuine concern for students’ poor reading abilities and a realization that many students were not likely to read their social studies textbooks at home, teachers told us that they tried to meet student needs—but at a cost. One teacher explained that he was doing the best he could under the circumstances; he spent most class time having students read the textbook and answer questions at the end of the chapter to ensure that they understood what they read. He was aware that, as a consequence, his students were not engaged in discussions or other activities.12 Other teachers in urban schools explained that the school as a whole put such an emphasis on order and discipline that the school atmosphere was authoritarian rather than democratic, and students were not encouraged to express their views in class discussions. We did not hear such reports from teachers in suburban schools. Instead, they described a rich variety of in-class and out-of-class activities that enhanced students’ civic education.

It is time that NCSS and social studies educators give top priority to addressing these inequalities. Rather than acquiesce in politicians’ calls to standardize the curriculum or to increase the number of competency tests that are given to students each year, we must insist that all children and youth receive high-quality social studies instruction every day.


Democratic Attitudes and Social Issues

Students across countries tended to be supportive of rights for women and immigrants, with 70 percent or more indicating support on a variety of items. U.S. students were especially supportive. They, along with students from Norway, Sweden, and Cyprus, scored above the international mean on both the women’s rights and immigrants’ rights scales.13 That is good news. Nine out of ten U.S. ninth graders said that they supported women’s political rights, that women should have equal political rights to men, and that women should run for political office.14 That level of support is an improvement over findings in the last IEA civic education study, in which students from the United States were the least supportive of women’s political rights among students in the ten countries surveyed.15

Additionally, in the recent study, more than 80 percent of U.S. ninth graders said that immigrants should have all of the same rights as everyone else in the country.16 Students agreed that immigrants should have the opportunity to keep their own customs and life-styles, and that after living in the country for several years, they should have the same opportunity as other citizens to vote in elections. This, too, is good news in a country that prides itself on being “a nation of immigrants.”

With respect to student attitudes, however, the news is not all good. Males were significantly less supportive of rights for females than were females.17 That is consistent with earlier research.18 In the recent study, students born outside the United States were less supportive of women’s rights than were those born in the United States, and black students were less supportive than were white students.19 Students with fewer books in the home (an indication of family income and education) were less supportive than were students with more books. Students born in the United States were less supportive of immigrants’ rights than were students born outside the country. Furthermore, white students were less likely than were their Hispanic, Asian, and multiracial peers to report a positive attitude toward immigrants’ rights. It is easy to dismiss these findings with the assumption that it is natural for people to be more supportive of rights for people like themselves than for those unlike themselves. I believe, however, that we should be concerned with the substantial numbers of ninth graders (between 10 and 20 percent) who are less than fully supportive of rights for “the other.” Do students think that rights are a zero-sum game, in which giving others more rights diminishes their own? Do they feel threatened?

These are issues that can and should be addressed by social studies educators. Researchers studying civic tolerance have found that students are more likely to support rights for others—including rights for groups whose beliefs they disagree with—when they do not feel threatened by the group or when they have studied about the application of democratic principles to specific cases.20

Social studies educators should confront these issues and give students the opportunity to explore gender and immigration topics in their classes. In the textbook analysis that was conducted as part of Phase 1 of the IEA study in the United States, males outnumbered females sixteen to one in civics and history textbooks for grades 7-9.21 Other studies reveal that even when women and gender issues are included in civics textbooks, they are not mentioned in classes.22 Clearly, much work remains to be done.

Furthermore, the textbook analysis, the focus groups, and the Phase 2 survey all point to the fact that many students do not have the opportunity to explore social issues, such as those related to gender and politics, and to immigration policies. Almost one-third of the ninth graders disagreed that teachers encouraged them to discuss political or social issues about which people have different opinions.23 This is important because social studies researchers have identified benefits associated with controversial issues discussions: the development of political interest, civic tolerance, and critical thinking skills.24


Civic Participation

There is also mixed news with respect to students’ current and future civic participation. Many students are already engaged in numerous civic-related activities. Fifty percent of U.S. ninth graders said that they had participated in a voluntary group that helps the community.25 That percentage was the same as reported by students in the NAEP civics assessment.26 Furthermore, it was larger than was the percentage reported by students in all of the other twenty-seven countries participating in the IEA CivEd study.27 Although volunteering to help others in the community may be a healthy sign for the future of a civil society, it does not necessarily mean that young people will grow up to be engaged in political activities or to influence public policies.

One-third of U.S. ninth graders reported participating in student government, and 20 percent had worked on a student newspaper—two school-level avenues for civic participation. More, however, had participated in sports, music (band) or art programs, community service, or religious organizations. Importantly, students who participated in any of these extracurricular activities did better on the civic knowledge part of the IEA CivEd assessment than did students who did not participate in those activities.28 In Phase 1 focus groups, students told us that they learned much about democracy, rights and responsibilities of citizens, and multicultural diversity from their participation in extracurricular activities.29 Apparently, participation in extracurricular activities is not merely a culture trait. It is also an important aspect of democratic education.

In other ways, however, U.S. students are not as engaged as they might be—the bad news. For example, although most U.S. ninth graders reported that they obtain news from television and newspapers, the percentages were lower than were percentages reported by students in most other countries. Indeed, only in Bulgaria and England did smaller percentages say that they followed news on television.30 But social studies teachers can encourage students to keep up with the news and relate class topics to current events. Interestingly, 75 percent of the U.S. students said that current events are discussed in their social studies classes. Apparently, the discussion occurs in such a way that students do not feel a need to follow the news themselves—too often, individual students simply report on an event that they read about or clipped out of a newspaper to meet an assignment. Other studies suggest that when teachers frequently engage students in discussions of controversial issues in the news, students become interested in following the news on their own.31


International Issues

Between 65 and 75 percent of ninth graders reported studying domestic topics, such as Congress, the presidency, and the courts, over the previous year. Fewer than 50 percent reported studying other countries’ governments or international organizations.32 Additionally, U.S. students said that they were less likely to talk about international topics than domestic topics with teachers, family adults, and peers. They were also less likely to follow international than national news on television.33 Furthermore, few U.S. students had participated in a United Nations or UNESCO club (2 percent) or a human rights organization (6 percent). More—24 percent—participated in an environmental organization. In recent years, when there has been increased discussion about the need for effective civic education, little of that discourse has attended to the need for a global perspective on civic education. This area needs attention if we are to adequately prepare our students to be knowledgeable, involved global citizens.


The Future

Young people possess emerging images of themselves as adult citizens. For example, 85 percent of U.S. ninth graders say that they expect to vote in national elections when they are adults.34 Almost 30 percent say that they probably or certainly will write letters to a newspaper about social or political issues.35 Eighteen percent anticipate being a candidate for local office. The challenge for social studies educators is to build on the idealism of students as they enter high school, so that as graduating seniors they become citizens who vote and express their views on public issues.

A study commissioned by the National Association of Secretaries of State, whose members are responsible for elections, is instructive.36 Concerned about low voter turnout of eighteen-to twenty-four- year-olds, the organization commissioned a study asking young people why they did not vote. Some young people said that they were embarrassed about not knowing what to do once they were in the voting booth. Others said that they did not feel sufficiently informed about the issues to cast an informed vote. Both of those conditions can be addressed in social studies classes. The second is more difficult than the first, particularly in this age of state tests. It is crucial, however, that social studies educators resist the current pressures to limit instruction to a drill of low-level facts—or even the squeezing out of social studies from the day’s schedule. Instead, we must insist on high-quality issues-centered instruction for all of our students. In that way, we may indeed help our young people become the knowledgeable, engaged citizens that they want and expect to be.



1. S. Baldi, M. Perie, D. Skidmore, E. Greenberg, and Carole Hahn, What Democracy Means to Ninth Graders: U.S. Results from the International IEA Civic Education Study (Washington, D.C.: National Center for Education Statistics, U.S. Department of Education, 2001). Available at Order from U.S. Department of Education, ED Pubs, PO Box 1398, Jessup, MD 20794-1398 or call 1-877-4ED-Pubs; Judith Torney-Purta, R. Lehmann, H. Oswald, and W. Schulz, Citizenship and Education in Twenty-Eight Countries: Civic Knowledge and Engagement at Age Fourteen (Amsterdam: The International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement, 2001). Available at Order from the American Bar Association, Division for Public Education, 1-800-285-2221.

2. An international team developed the questionnaires over seven years, using a consensus process involving more than twenty countries. The results are reported in two reports—an international report containing international comparisons and analyses of relationships of variables within the twenty-eight countries (Torney-Purta et al., Citizenship and Education in Twenty-Eight Countries) and a national report containing U.S. results by various subgroups and information not asked internationally (Baldi et al., What Democracy Means).

3. Carole L. Hahn and Judith Torney-Purta, “The IEA Civic Education Project: National and International Perspectives,” Social Education 65 (1999): 425-431; Judith Torney-Purta, J. Schwille, and J. A. Amadeo, eds., Civic Education across Countries: Twenty-Four National Case Studies from the IEA Civic Education Project (Amsterdam: The International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement, 1999).

4. Carole L. Hahn, “Challenges to Civic Education in the United States,” in Civic Education across Countries: Twenty-Four National Case Studies from the IEA Civic Education Project, eds. Judith Torney-Purta, J. Schwille, and J. A. Amadeo (Amsterdam: The International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement, 1999), 583-607; Carole L. Hahn, P. P. Dilworth, M. Hughes, and T. Sen, IEA Civic Education Project Phase 1: The United States—Responses to the Four Core International Framing Questions,Volume III (unpublished paper; Available ERIC document reproduction service ED 444 887).

5. Baldi et al., What Democracy Means.

6. Ibid.

7. R. Niemi and J. Smith, “Enrollments in High School Government Classes: Are We Short-Changing Both Citizenship and Political Science Training?” PS: Political Science and Politics 34 (2001): 281-288.

8. Baldi et al., What Democracy Means.

9. L. Anderson, L. Jenkins, J. Leming, W. MacDonald, I. Mullis, and M. J. Turner, The Civic Report Card (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education, 1990); A. D. Lutkus, A. R. Weiss, J. Campbell, J. Mazzeo, and S. Lazer, NAEP 1998 Civics Report Card for the Nation (Washington, D.C.: National Center for Education Statistics, U.S. Department of Education, 1999); R. Niemi and J. Junn, Civic Education: What Makes Students Learn (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1998).

10. Baldi et al., What Democracy Means.

11. Anderson et al., The Civic Report Card; Lutkus et al., NAEP 1999 Civics Report Card; Niemi and Junn, Civic Education.

12. Hahn, “Challenges to Civic Education.”

13. Torney-Purta et al., Citizenship and Education in Twenty-Eight Countries.

14. Baldi et al., What Democracy Means.

15 J. Torney, A. Oppenheim, and R. R. Farnen, Civic Education in Ten Countries (New York: John Wiley, 1975).

16. Baldi et al., What Democracy Means.

17. Ibid.

18. Carole L. Hahn, Becoming Political: Comparative Perspectives on Citizenship Education (Albany, N.Y.: SUNY Press, 1998); Torney et al., Civic Education in Ten Countries.

19. Baldi et al., What Democracy Means.

20. Patricia G. Avery, “Political Tolerance among Adolescents,” Theory and Research in Social Education 16 (1988): 183-201; Patricia G. Avery, K. Bird, S. Johnstone, J. Sullivan, and K. Thalhammer, “Exploring Political Tolerance with Adolescents,” Theory and Research in Social Education 20 (1992): 386-420.

21. Patricia G. Avery and A. M. Simmons, “Civic Life as Conveyed in U.S. Civics and History Textbooks,” International Journal of Social Education 15 (2000/2001): 105-130.

22. Carole L. Hahn, “Gender and Political Learning,” Theory and Research in Social Education 24 (1996): 8-35.

23. Baldi et al., What Democracy Means.

24. Carole L. Hahn, “Research on Issues-Centered Social Studies,” in Handbook on Teaching Social Issues, eds. Ronald W. Evans and David W. Saxe (Washington, D.C.: National Council for the Social Studies. 1996), 25-41.

25. Baldi et al., What Democracy Means.

26. Lutkus et al., NAEP 1998 Civics Report Card for the Nation.

27. Torney-Purta et al., Citizenship and Education in Twenty-Eight Countries.

28. Baldi et al., What Democracy Means. All of the comparisons in the U.S. report, including this one, did not control for other variables, such as socioeconomic status, home literacy resources, or expected education. It is likely that college-bound students from high socioeconomic status homes and communities may have more access and encouragement to participate in extracurricular activities than their peers.

29. Hahn, “Challenges to Civic Education.”

30. Torney-Purta et al., Citizenship and Education in Twenty-Eight Countries.

31. Hahn, Becoming Political.

32. Baldi et al., What Democracy Means.

33. Ibid.

34. Torney-Purta et al, Citizenship and Education in Twenty-Eight Countries.

35. Baldi et al., What Democracy Means.

36. National Association of Secretaries of State (NASS), New Millennium Project: American Youth Attitudes on Politics, Citizenship, Government, and Voting (Lexington, Ky.: Author, 1999).


Carole L. Hahn is professor of social studies and comparative education at Emory University, Atlanta. She was the National Research Coordinator for the United States portion of the IEA study reported here. She is an author of the report titled What Democracy Means to Ninth Graders: U. S. Results from the International IEA Civic Education Study, and wrote the case study of civic education in the United States. She is a past president of National Council for the Social Studies.