American High Schools Challenged by Political Incivility, Lack of Civic Education

New national survey of principals finds schools struggling with the opioid epidemic, immigration enforcement and gun violence

In his inaugural address, AFSA President Ernest Logan stressed the need for civics education: “We put citizenship and history on the back burner in our schools,” he noted, calling for AFSA to be the leading advocate to place civics education on the front burner.

“Students have to understand the Constitution and how it establishes our basic rights,” Logan said. “They must be taught the rights they are guaranteed under the Bill of Rights and what the Declaration of Independence says about despots and tyrants.”

He said students should know what the electoral college is and how a candidate can become president without winning the popular vote, and also understand what separation of powers means and how each branch functions.

Logan decried the ignorance of students (and most Americans) concerning the Holocaust, Soviet Communism, slavery and Jim Crow—and the many accomplishments of the labor movement.

Logan’s statements take on added importance as a new survey finds America’s high schools are greatly impacted by political incivility and riven by untrustworthy information and the omnipresent use of social media.

In this highly charged environment, schools are struggling to address many of the same critical issues confronting the nation, including opioid abuse, immigration and gun violence. These issues are impacting students and schools and taking needed time away from the efforts of school principals to strengthen teaching and learning.

The survey, titled School and Society in the Age of Trump, is a nationally representative sample of 505 high school principals conducted in the summer of 2018 by the Institute for Democracy, Education and Access at UCLAIt reviewed how a broad set of social issues at the forefront of the Trump presidency are felt and affect students and educators within America’s high schools.

Responding to the survey, almost nine in 10 principals report that incivility and contentiousness in the broader political environment has considerably affected their school community.

An overwhelming majority of principals report such problems as contentious classroom environments, hostile exchanges outside of class and demeaning or hateful remarks over political views.

School principals also say their work is greatly impacted. The average principal in the study reports spending six and a half hours a week addressing the five societal challenges. One in four principals spends the equivalent of one workday a week responding to the challenges. That time represents lost opportunity costs, taking time away from efforts to meet students’ academic needs and enhance the quality of teaching and learning.

More than eight in 10 principals report their students have made derogatory remarks about other racial or ethnic groups, and more than six in 10 principals say their students have made derogatory remarks about immigrants.

Here are additional highlights:

  • Eighty-nine percent of principals report that incivility and contentiousness in the broader political environment has considerably affected their school community. 
  • Eighty-three percent of schools see these tensions intensified and accelerated by the flow of untrustworthy or disputed information and the increasing use of social media that is fueling and furthering division among students and between schools and the communities. 
  • Sixty-two percent of schools have been harmed by opioid abuse. 
  • Sixty-eight percent of the principals surveyed say federal immigration enforcement policies and the political rhetoric around the issue have negatively impacted students and their families.
  • Ninety-two percent of principals say their school has faced problems related to the threat of gun violence.

In interviews with principals, the most commonly reported instances of racial hostility echo President Trump’s rhetoric on immigration, with several principals recounting stories of white students chanting “Build the wall!” to demean and threaten students of color.

These tensions are intensified and accelerated by the flow of untrustworthy or disputed information across schools. The near-constant use of social media also is fueling and furthering division.

Students struggle to discern fact from opinion, identify quality sources, or participate in inclusive and diverse deliberations on social issues. School climate suffers as students use social media to call one another names or spread rumors. Almost six in 10 teens report having experienced some form of cyberbullying. “Social media,” one principal says, “is destroying school safety and climate.”

“These findings make clear that schools are not immune from what is happening across the nation,” said John Rogers, a professor of education at UCLA and the director of IDEA in a press release. “The flow of the nation’s harsh political rhetoric does not stop at the school house gate, but instead, propelled by misinformation and social media, is fueling anger, fear and division that is negatively impacting students, schools and learning.

“In an environment propelled by fear, distrust and social isolation, schools are feeling the heat of many of the same issues tearing at the fabric of our nation,” Rogers said. “Principals tell us these issues are raising student stress and anxiety, and causing students to lose focus in the classroom or miss classes altogether.

“School principals in the age of Trump encounter substantial obstacles,” Rogers said. “But the response of some school leaders to these challenges has been nothing less than heroic.”

Across the challenges, many principals report spending extra time talking and meeting with students and parents, connecting students and families with community and social services, and planning and providing professional development to help teachers address the challenges. Principals have intervened with immigration authorities on behalf of students, and in dealing with the opioid crisis, some principals have sent backpacks full of food home for the weekend with students or dug into their own pockets for money to help pay utility bills or help with rent.

Virtually every school, regardless of region, community type or racial makeup, was impacted by these societal challenges. More than nine in 10 principals in the survey report experiencing at least three challenges, and more than three in 10 experiences, all five challenges.

Certain types of schools are more likely to be impacted by particular challenges. Racially mixed schools are most impacted by untrustworthy information and political division. Schools that enroll predominantly students of color are most impacted by the threats of immigration enforcement and gun violence. Predominantly white schools are most impacted by the opioid crisis.

The opioid crisis is experienced most severely in the Northeast, and the impact of threat of immigration enforcement is greatest in the West. The researchers also note that when multiple challenges occur within a school site, they interact with one another in complex and mutually reinforcing ways.

“It is likely that political division makes schools more vulnerable to the spread of untrustworthy information, just as the spread of untrustworthy information often contributes to division and hostility,” Rogers said. “And the fear and distress associated with threats to immigrant communities, gun violence and opioid misuse, increases the possibilities for division and distrust among students and between educators and the broader community.”

The report recommends:

  • Establish and communicate school climate standards emphasizing care, connectedness and civility, and then create practices that enable educational systems to document and report on conditions associated with these standards;
  • Build professional capacity within educational systems to address the holistic needs of students and communities, and extend this capacity by supporting connections between school-based educators and other governmental agencies and community-based organizations serving young people and their families;
  • Develop integrated systems of health, mental health and social welfare support for students and their families; and
  • Create and support networks of educators committed to fostering care, connectedness and strong civility in their public education systems.