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Research Report

A Report Card on New York’s Civic Literacy

  • Eric Lane
  • Meg Barnette
Published: April 13, 2011


In this year’s State of the Union address, President Obama called for “our generation’s Sputnik moment.” Before 43 million viewers, he rallied Americans to meet the new challenges of the global economy, particularly those posed by China’s and India’s growing economic power. The productivity of American workers is unmatchable, he argued, but their deficiency in science and math puts the nation at a severe disadvantage against the global economic competition. To overcome this, the President pledged government resources, including the training of 100,000 new science and math teachers.

Of course all of this is positive. We urgently need a public commitment to science and math education of the sort that propelled us to our space race victory, putting men on the moon along the way. But with this economic focus, the President did not con¬front an equally urgent educational need central to our democracy, one that is at the very heart of why Americans are falling behind: civic literacy. As former Harvard University President Derek Bok observed in 2002: “Civic education in the public schools has been almost totally eclipsed by a preoccupation with preparing the workforce of a global economy.” As multiple national studies and our findings in this report all demonstrate, few Americans have the requisite knowledge to engage in a democratic policy discussion. Few know anything about the three branches of government, their functions, or how an idea becomes a law. And even fewer would know how to effect the changes recommended by the President, or those called for in this report.

The findings of this report are based on a telephone survey conducted in the summer of 2010 of just over one thousand registered New York voters, conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates for the Brennan Center for Justice. We polled a diverse sample of New Yorkers on their attitudes toward civic literacy and its necessity, and we tested their familiarity with prominent elected officials, governmental and legislative processes, and the U.S. Constitution itself. Against the backdrop of previous studies, our evidence shows that New Yorkers, like most Americans, know very little about their Constitution and their government.

Without civic literacy we cannot maintain a vigorous democracy. And our civic illiteracy will only get worse if we limit our race to the top to only math and science.


A Report Card on New York’s Civic Literacy