New Poll and Paper Show How Schools Fail to Teach Civics

Published November 1, 1997

A new poll reveals that most Americans lack a basic understanding of the U.S. Constitution and its provisions. While the new poll raises doubts about how well public education is achieving its fundamental mission, a white paper issued by the U.S. Department of Education indicates profound confusion about what civics means.

Only 5 percent of American adults surveyed could correctly answer ten fundamental questions about the Constitution, according to the poll, the first-ever comprehensive survey of Americans’ Constitutional knowledge. The telephone survey of 1,000 U.S. citizens, commissioned by the National Constitution Center and conducted by the polling firm Shepardson Stern & Kaminsky, has a margin of error of +/- 3.1 percentage points at a 95 percent level of confidence.

The poll results, issued in Washington, DC, to open Constitution Week 1997, September 17-23, demonstrated just how little Americans know about the Constitution. For example:

  • only 6 percent of those polled could name all four rights guaranteed by the First Amendment, and almost one-quarter could not name a single First Amendment right;
  • 84 percent incorrectly believe that the Constitution states that “all men are equal”;
  • 35 percent believe that the Constitution mandates English as the country’s official language;
  • about one in three did not know the number of branches in the federal government, and two in three could not name all three branches.

Despite their lack of knowledge about the document, 91 percent of survey respondents reported that the U.S. Constitution is important to them, and 84 percent believe that for the Constitutional system to work we must be active and informed citizens.

“It is critical that we use this poll to begin to make the changes necessary to insure that we are all better educated about the Constitution,” declared Philadelphia Mayor Edward G. Rendell, chairperson of the National Constitution Center.

According to Pennsylvania Education Secretary Eugene W. Hickok, “These troubling studies should be a rallying call to teach our young people that the Constitution gives us precious rights along with demanding responsibilities.”

“During National Constitution Week,” said Hickok, “let us rekindle our commitment to helping students understand the principles found in the nation’s most important document.”

Such help is unlikely to come from the U.S. Department of Education.

On the final day of Constitution Week, September 23, the U.S. Department of Education issued a white paper prepared for Education Secretary Richard W. Riley. The paper opens with the statement that “Quality public schools are the foundation of a democracy and a free enterprise economic system.” It goes on to define the fundamental mission of public education as the following ideal:

“[P]ublic education does not serve the public. It creates the public. And in creating the right kind of public, the schools contribute toward strengthening the spiritual basis of the American Creed.” (Neil Postman, The End of Education)

It is hardly clear that such a notion of civics would include any mention of the U.S. Constitution, let alone memorization of its most important parts.

The white paper and the poll raise doubts about how well public education is preparing children for citizenship.

George A. Clowes is managing editor of School Reform News. His email address is [email protected].