Monday, January 13, 2014

National Civics Teacher Survey: Information Literacy in High School Civics

Teaching students to use news and information media (“information literacy”) is an important aspect of civic education, especially now that news sources are rapidly changing and fragmenting along ideological lines. Information literacy is required in several state standards, and it is also frequently defined as an important “21st century skill.”[1]

Civics and government courses are among the places where information literacy can be taught. Using the data from the National Civics Teacher Survey, The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning & Engagement (CIRCLE) has analyzedthe extent to which information literacy is taught in high school civics classes and how that varies.

Key findings:

- Civics teachers believe that information literacy is critical and believe that students must to be able to identify, gather and produce credible information
- But less than half of teachers are very confident about teaching information literacy. A majority are interested in getting more training and resources.
- Teachers commonly use news articles as sources, and 80% discuss election-related issues at least weekly
- AP and honors courses are more likely to incorporate information literacy than courses that are required for graduation.
- Teachers who perceive more support are more likely to teach information literacy.

The survey asked teachers to answer questions about the courses they taught in the fall of 2012; most teachers reported on more than one class. It’s important to note that that semester was probably unusual. In 45% of courses offered that fall, teachers reported spending much more time than usual on politics because of the upcoming presidential election.

Civics Teachers Believe Information Literacy is Critical

The high school civics and American government teachers surveyed strongly emphasized the need to teach information literacy and believed that information literacy is an important learning outcome.

- Virtually all of them believed that students should know what is credible in a sea of information (69.4% strongly agreed, 30.5% agreed).
- Furthermore, they thought that students need to know how to gather (56.8% strongly agreed, 43.2% agreed) and produce (50.7% strongly agreed, 48.0% agreed) credible information.
- In some of their fall 2012 courses, teachers had spent a considerable amount of time teaching students how to critically analyze the news.
- A majority (51.9%) of classes had allocated a whole unit or more to this competency; in 23% of courses, critical analysis of news was a major emphasis of the whole class. Teachers spent at least one class on this topic in more than 92% of the courses they taught.

Teachers Commonly Used News Articles as a Source and Discussed Election-Related Issues

Over half (53.9%) of the civics and American government courses taught by teachers in our survey incorporated current-event discussions daily, and an additional 34.9% had current-event discussion at least weekly. The teachers most commonly required students to read news articles (85.1%), followed by watching presidential/vice-presidential debates (72.1%), watching election-night coverage (44.7%), watching other political debates (33.2%), and following news on new media such as Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook (31.5%). As the courses were taught in the months leading up to the 2012 presidential election, discussion of that contest was quite common. Overall, 80.2% of courses discussed election-related issues at least weekly.

Less than Half of Teachers are Very Confident about Teaching Information Literacy

About 90% of the teachers showed at least some level of confidence in teaching specific elements of information literacy. However, only about one-third felt “very confident” in teaching matters like identifying valid information, creating credible information, and why free press matters in a democracy.

Furthermore, a majority of the teachers had at least some access to resources to learn about how to teach these contents. At the same time, a majority were interested in getting more training and resources on each of these topics.

Variations by Types of Teachers, Schools, and Courses

Teachers used different pedagogies and allocated their time differently when they taught graduation-requirement courses rather than Advanced Placement (AP) or honors courses:

- Teachers incorporated daily current-event discussions in 62% of AP/honors classes, compared to 50% of graduation-requirement courses.
- Critical analysis of news coverage was considered a major emphasis of one unit or of the whole course in 68% of the AP/honors courses, but in only 45.4% of the graduation-required courses.
- All of the news-related course assignments were more common in the AP/honors classes than in graduation-requirement classes. For instance, 42.9% of AP/honors classes required students to follow news via new media, compared to 27.7% of required courses; and 59.9% of AP/honors courses required students to watch the election-night coverage, compared to just 40.6% in required courses.
- Given that these teachers often taught both types of courses, the differences are not completely attributable to the types of schools they teach in. Rather, these differences may possibly relate to constraints on what and when to teach certain topics, and to students’ interests.

Teachers who perceived a greater level of support from their principal, district, and students’ parents were more confident in teaching all three aspects of information literacy. Furthermore, teachers’ personal attitudes toward deliberation and appreciation of students’ voices and contributions in the classroom strongly predicted their confidence.

Teachers who supervised or advised student government, social-issue clubs, groups that attended political speeches, and ethnic or cultural clubs were, on average, also more likely to be confident about teaching these topics. On the other hand, teachers who advised or coached sports teams, arts and culture clubs, and service clubs were no different from the average. There were only nine teachers supervising school newspapers in the sample, which is too small for an analysis.

Years of teaching experience, educational attainment, college major, geographical region, the number of professional development experiences, or school type (private or public) did not predict how confident teachers felt about teaching information literacy. Likewise, none of the reported school-wide demographic factors (e.g., the percentage of the student body receiving reduced lunch, the percent immigrant, the percent Black, or the percent going to college) seemed to matter.

Possible Implications

This analysis of information literacy in high school civics classes suggests that many students are being exposed to current-event discussions at least weekly and half of teachers surveyed spend at least one unit on critical analysis of news coverage. However, there is some evidence of a possible mismatch between the amount of time spent and teachers’ confidence in teaching this subject matter. Only about one-third of teachers surveyed said that they were “very confident” about teaching information literacy. Schools of education and other professional development providers can help to increase the number of very confident teachers by targeting time and resources to develop peer exchanges, trainings, and lessons on teaching information literacy.

Additionally, the fact that information literacy receives more attention in AP classes than in graduation-requirement courses raises important questions about the cause of this discrepancy. State education officials should seek to understand the reasons in their own states. For instance, do state standards for social studies overlook information literacy, or are the existing standards not being implemented consistently?

Funders in government and philanthropy should consider supporting resources, training, experimentation, and innovation to enhance teachers’ grasp of information literacy and to ensure that all students study it.

Methodology: The National Civics Teacher Survey

To gauge the trends and variation in pedagogy and the effects of state policies, CIRCLE and the Commission on Youth Voting and Civic Knowledge surveyed a national sample of teachers. In the months following the 2012 presidential election, CIRCLE worked with an educational marketing firm MDR to contact U.S. high school civics and government teachers. MDR’s sample of 8,000 is thought to include approximately half of all the U.S. high school civics and government teachers. We contacted 4,000 of those teachers via U.S. mail with a letter and an enclosed $2 bill inviting them to participate in the survey (which was available online or on paper). About one week later, MDR sent an invitation email, written by CIRCLE, to 4,837 teachers (from the same pool) whose email addresses were available. MDR sent a follow-up email if the teacher opened the initial email but did not click on the embedded survey link. The survey was open from May 10, 2013 to June 1, 2013 and we received a total of 720 responses (4 were in paper format). We cannot know how many teachers received one or both solicitations, so the response rate may range from 9.0% to 14.9% (which is higher than the 1-2% rate common for email surveys). Previous studies suggest that the U.S. mail outreach has a positive impact on response rates. Of those who started the survey, 86% finished the last questions in the survey.

Each region of the U.S. was represented proportionately by the participating teachers, who worked mostly at public high schools (93%) and tended to be more educated than the general teacher population, with 69.9% holding a master’s degree or higher (5.1% held doctorate degrees). Exactly half of the teachers worked in schools where 50% or more of the students were eligible for a reduced-price or free-lunch programs. More than one quarter (26.6%) worked in schools where the teachers thought less than half of the students were “college-bound,” while 36.4% thought three-quarters or more of their students would go to college. Each teacher could provide information about as many as two courses she or he taught in the fall of 2012. Well over half of the participating teachers described two courses, resulting in a descriptive sample of 1,034 courses.

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