Teachers Matter: The Trouble with Leaving Political Education to the Coaches
reviewed by Jesus Garcia - 2002
Title: Teachers Matter: The Trouble with Leaving Political Education to the Coaches
Author(s): Stephen M. Caliendo
Publisher: Praeger Publications, Westport
ISBN: 027596907X, Pages: 131, Year: 2000
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Caliendo is not the first nor the last social scientist to describe the status of social studies education in America's secondary schools. What purportedly occurs in secondary social studies classrooms is of interest to the educational community, parents, politicians, and special interest groups. Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.'s blistering attacks on multicultural education in social studies classrooms that he alleges promotes divisiveness and James W. Loewen's stinging criticism of U.S. history textbooks for their lack of scholarship are just two of numerous reports and studies that have caught the attention of the popular media. Unfortunately, little in the way of positive suggestions seems to flow from the pens of many of these critics. In a recent speech on history standards, for example, a prominent educator lambasted efforts by education officials to develop state standards but offered little in the form of suggestions on how to improve the situation.
How many coaches does it take to fully staff a high school social studies department? While Caliendo's book title can be taken as a friendly jab at hiring practices in secondary education (Hey coach, anyone can teach social studies!), the focus of this short but informative book is the status of political education in secondary social studies classrooms. Caliendo groups political science, civics, and government courses and refers to them as civic education. Stephen M. Caliendo is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. His interests include the formation of public opinion and the political socialization process, particularly the treatment of the U.S. Supreme Court in civic education.
The Supreme Court, Caliendo contends, is rarely explored as a political entity in social studies methods courses, examined critically by secondary teachers, or described in great detail in government textbooks. Moreover, he argues, in most secondary classrooms there is little discussion of such issues as the manner in which justices are selected, justices' political ideologies, or possible explanations for their decision-making. The Court appears to be above critical examination and certainly above criticism. The literature seems to support these allegations.
Caliendo's specific aim was to observe social studies classrooms for the treatment of the Supreme Court. In late 1997 he selected five schools in a mid-western state to observe five teachers and 190 seniors in 10 different American Government classes. The author used teacher interviews and classroom observations, textbooks, and surveys of student political attitudes to examine the political socialization process, particularly knowledge and understanding of the Supreme Court and the level of confidence attributed to this political institution by these select seniors.
Teachers Matter begins with a review of the literature in the area of political socialization and the Court. Caliendo notes that the "U.S. Supreme Court is covered less frequently in the media than the other branches of government and is thus unlikely to be considered by most Americans on a regular basis. Therefore, the attitudes about the Court that were developed when people did think about the institution are more likely to persist into adulthood than other political attitudes" (p. 13). While media attention has increased over the past seven decades, the public is not "inundated with stories about the Court" (p. 14). By being out of the limelight, the Supreme Court perpetuates a self-image of not being like the other two branches of government. The justices, for example, cloak themselves and their work in a tradition of secretiveness and promote themselves as obscure and mysterious. In short, according to this view, the Court has distanced itself from the other branches of government and as a result is the branch of government about which the public knows the least. And, because the media views the Court as less political, when it does receive media attention, coverage tends to be objective and positive.
Next, Caliendo explores the political socialization process by describing the different forms of political education (i.e., political learning, political socialization, political education, and civic education) that could be employed by secondary teachers. A commonly held belief among social studies educators is that what occurs in schools is a form of civic education learning that "encourages the transmission of information and that promotes affective political orientations and the teaching of attitudes and values that are compatible with support for the existing regime" (p. 19). And as the research indicates, the attitudes that are most latent (those which are least visible) are least likely to change. In this case, it is the Court that is least visible to secondary students and social studies educators.
Third, Caliendo looks at the research on adult support for the Court. Over the last twenty-five years, the Court has consistently maintained significantly stronger support and less criticism from the public than the other branches of government. This level of support seems to change only slightly when the Court makes decisions that are contrary to public opinion. However, confidence in the Court does seem to be connected to the public's confidence in the members of the other branches of government. He concludes this section of his study by stating that one cannot make the link that formal education is the most important indicator of how students will perceive the Court in adulthood. However, examining the political socialization process in secondary schools does offer insights into the quantity and quality of the treatment the Supreme Court receives.
The five male teachers involved in Caliendo's study vary widely in experience, approaches to teaching, and personalities. Mr. Kaupus is described as "old school" because of a propensity to small talk with his students; Mr. Caballero is characterized as a salesman who wishes to sell democracy to his students; Mr. McGill is labeled a "cynic by nature" who pays too much attention to the inner workings of local and state government; Mr. Hawke is viewed "as over the hill," someone who has lost the ability to challenge students; and Mr. Peralta, also a salesman, is characterized as overly committed to describing to students the importance of "individual rights in a democracy" at the expense of other tenets of American democracy. Two of the five possess advanced degrees; their teaching experiences range from nine to thirty-six years. All of the subjects have served as coaches, and two are currently coaching. Caliendo's descriptions of his subjects are not terribly positive and certainly raise questions about social studies teachers.
While the teachers indicated that one of their goals was to motivate and empower students, their teaching approaches suggested otherwise. They all favored lecture and were all committed to providing their students with the necessary information to pass their required course. Interestingly, the teachers, all veterans, indicated they made little use of the textbook. In reality, such was not the case. Except for Mr. McGill, who raised questions about the importance of protecting individual rights, none of the other teachers created an environment where students were asked to reflect and, if need be, challenge the country's political system.
Caliendo also conducted qualitative and qualitative analyses of the four American Government textbooks used in ninety-five percent of the school districts in the targeted state. The subjects in his study used these textbooks in their classrooms. His analyses focused on the treatment of the three branches of government and according to the author, an average of 13 per cent of a book is devoted to describing the Congress, 11 per cent the presidency, and 15 per cent to the Supreme Court. Treatment of the Court is both legalistic -- defender of the Constitutions and guardian of the rights of individuals - and political -- involved in policy issues in its rulings, particularly those focusing on individual freedom and equality and civil rights and liberties. Overall, textbook coverage of the Court and the justices was characterized as balanced and comprehensive.
To the teachers in Caliendo's study, coverage of the Supreme Court was not a high priority, often relegated to a concluding activity in their courses. The subjects justified this form of coverage by pointing out that the Court was covered in units describing the other two branches of government. The textbook is the source for both the teachers and students as some of the following topics are treated in their classes: "Importance of the Court," "Protector of the Rights of Individuals," "How Court Cases Reach the Supreme Court." The Court also receives coverage when specific cases and decisions are essential to a discussion of the other branches of government. While textbooks and civic education teachers primarily focus on the legalistic, a political description of the Court occasionally surfaces when the subjects find themselves in discussions of specific cases, decisions or the rulings of particular judges.
The survey administered to the seniors included such topics as media exposure, ideology, attitudes about American political institutions, and specific questions about the Supreme Court. Students responded by providing their preferences on Likert scales and open response questions. In comparison to adults, the students have more confidence in all three branches of government; they believed the Court protected their rights; and a sizable number of the students believed the justices were not politicians because they were not elected to office. Most exhibited little interest in studying the judicial branch of government. They read newspapers, watched the news, and more than a few indicated times they discussed politics with their family. However, the Court was not the most popular topic discussed at the dinner table.
Caliendo's study seems to substantiate what appears in the literature. Political socialization in secondary civic education classes is "the deliberate teaching of attitudes and values that are compatible with support for the existing regime." And, what appears to be major goals of this form of political education are some of the following: (1) a level of acceptance of many aspects of the American political system and (2) a reluctance to challenge the system, particularly the role of the Supreme Court in our political system (p. 19).
The study raises many challenging questions. While Caliendo's study explores the perceptions the educational community holds of the social sciences and social studies, more important questions focus on definition and purpose and the teaching of civic education in secondary social studies classroom. According to the Center for Civic Education (2001), its mission is "to promote an enlightened and responsible citizenry committed to democratic principles and actively engaged in the practice of democracy in the U.S. and other countries." It seems to me that this statement lends support to two basic forms of political socialization in secondary schools: a) political education - deliberate efforts to transmit political information to create affective political orientations whether or not such learning supports the political regime; and b) civic education - deliberate teaching of attitudes and values that are compatible with support for the existing regime. According to Caliendo this type of political socialization is not occurring in schools. Why is this? By not exploring this question, Caliendo doesn't really probe the interrelationships among the issues he raises in this study: teacher preparation, knowledge of the teaching of political science, teacher professionalism, trends in education and social studies, and the changing nature of learning in contemporary schools. Caliendo tells us what teachers do in civic education classes, particularly what students learn about the Supreme Court, but does not offer an explanation for this type of civic education.
This study appears to be another critical assessment of social studies education in America's schools. While I was not terribly surprised by the author's findings, I would have found Caliendo's book more valuable if he had offered the reader some explanation for the kind of civic education he observed. The question remains - What can the educational community do to improve the quality of civic education in today's schools? A meaningful response to this question comes by looking at individual issues and the interplay among them.
Center for Civic Education (2001). About the Center. [http://www.civiced.org/whatis.html]