The Impact of Teacher’s Civic Knowledge on Student Performance

By Rohan Somji & Dr. Diana Owen

Teachers serve as the primary source of information and guidance for students in the classroom. Understanding the relationship between teacher civic knowledge and student civic knowledge is essential for evaluating the effectiveness of civic education programs.

A crucial question arises: How strong is the connection between the knowledge possessed by teachers and the knowledge acquired by students? Delving into this question unveils insights into the interplay between educator expertise and student outcomes. Teachers’ content knowledge, their years of experience in teaching, and their level of education can impact their pedagogical skills and affect student learning. 

1. Introduction

Teachers play a pivotal role in imparting knowledge to their students. In his book Visible Learning, John Hattie, using meta-analysis, finds that the relationship between teacher content knowledge and student achievement is strong. (Hattie 2008) This blog post explores the correlation between teacher civic knowledge and student civic knowledge, shedding light on its implications. The research also examines whether teachers’ highest level of education and years of teaching experience impact this relationship. 

2. Project Citizen Dataset and Measures

The data used to explore the research question is from a study of Project Citizen (PC) conducted by the Civic Education Research Lab (CERL) at Georgetown University under the direction of Dr. Diana Owen. PC is a curriculum intervention where middle and high school students engage in project-based learning. They identify community problems, research policy-based solutions, develop policy proposals, and create political action plans to convince public officials to adopt and implement the policy. Teachers in the study received professional development from the Center for Civic Education aimed at increasing their content knowledge, improving their capacity to engage students in PC, and enhancing their professional engagement with other educators. (Owen 2022)

The dataset integrated teacher and student data collected during the second cohort of PC in the academic year 2021-2022. The teachers in this study had received the PC professional development. Teachers’ civic knowledge was assessed using an index comprised of 46 multiple-choice questions that covered a wide range of topics related to general knowledge of the public policy process, federalism, branches of the U.S. government, government departments involved in the policy process, interest groups, and non-governmental organisations. The teacher knowledge data were collected after they had completed the PC program. The scores on this index ranged from sixteen to 40; the index was reliable (Cronbach’s α=.879). (Owen 2022)

Student knowledge covered the same content areas as teacher knowledge. It was measured using a battery of twenty questions and was assessed through a posttest which measured their knowledge after completing the PC curriculum intervention. The items were combined into an index. The student knowledge index ranged from one to nineteen and was reliable (Cronbach’s α=0.871). The mean posttest score for each teacher’s PC class was entered on the dataset. (Owen 2022)

3. The Analysis

Our hypothesis is that there is a significant positive correlation between teacher knowledge and student knowledge. The two key metrics used in this analysis were the civic content knowledge scores of teachers who completed the PC professional development program and the civic content knowledge scores of their students after completing the PC curriculum. 

The bivariate analysis found a Pearson’s R correlation coefficient of 0.417, indicating a moderately strong positive correlation between teacher knowledge and student knowledge scores. This correlation was backed by a strong statistical significance (p≤.01).

The study then delved into the role of teachers’ educational degrees and years of teaching experience as potentially mitigating factors in the relationship between teacher and student knowledge. Education level was measured by a dichotomy with 0 indicating a bachelor’s degree and 1 an advanced degree. The number of years a teacher had spent in the profession did impact their knowledge scores. Bivariate correlations revealed that the highest degree held by a teacher was moderately correlated with student knowledge scores (Pearson’s R=.22; p=.06). The correlation of .20 was similar for years of teaching experience and approached statistical significance.

Multiple ordinary least squares regression analysis (OLS) was performed to determine if the relationship between teacher and student civic knowledge remained when controls for teachers’ education and experience were considered. The dependent variable was student civics content knowledge. Teacher content knowledge was the independent variable of interest and controls were entered for highest degree earned and years of teaching experience. Education and experience were not collinear. The three variables in the model collectively explained 17.5% of the variation observed in students’ knowledge scores. The model was statistically significant at p≤.01. (See Table 1.)

Table 1.

In the multivariate model, teacher knowledge emerged as the strongest predictor of student knowledge, which supports our hypothesis. The beta coefficient for teacher knowledge was 0.38 which is greater than 0.19 beta coefficient for the highest degree held by the teachers. Years of experience did not attain statistical significance. The unstandardized coefficient of 0.18 for teacher knowledge indicated that for every point a teacher scored on the knowledge index, a student’s score increased by .18 points. It is also worth noting that students of teachers holding an advanced degree scored 1.82 points higher than those whose teachers had a bachelor’s degree.

These findings underline the importance of teachers being well-informed to effectively transmit knowledge to their students, reaffirming the teacher’s pivotal role in shaping student outcomes. While teacher degrees exhibited an impact on student test scores, it was overshadowed by the influence of teacher content knowledge. 

4. Implications

Now where do teachers acquire this essential content knowledge? The answer highlights the importance of professional development. Teachers gain and fortify their content knowledge through targeted professional development programs which serve as the conduit for acquiring expertise and honing their subject matter proficiency. The beta coefficient size of teacher knowledge was higher than those for the level of degree or years of experience. Structured initiatives provide educators with the tools, resources, and opportunities needed to stay current in their field and continually enhance their understanding of subject matter. As they delve deeper into their areas of expertise, they not only bolster their own understanding but also strengthen their ability to effectively convey complex concepts to their students. In essence, professional development empowers teachers to remain at the forefront of their disciplines, ensuring that they are well-equipped to inspire and educate the next generation of learners.

The teachers in the present study had completed the Center for Civic Education’s rigorous PC professional development program which was designed to enhance their subject matter expertise as well as improve their pedagogy for project-based learning. CERL’s research has shown that PC achieved these objectives even under the challenging conditions of the COVID-19 pandemic. (Owen 2022)

Consistent with our findings, a meta analysis by Ahn and Choi found a correlation between teacher knowledge in math and student outcomes, although the very effect size of d=0.12 was small. (Ahn and Choi 2004) Ogbonnaya and Mogari showed a statistically significant relationship between student achievement and teacher content knowledge. Their linear regression analysis indicated that 76.8% of the variation in the student achievement is explained by teacher content knowledge. (Ogbonnaya and Mogari 2014) 

Teachers who possess a deep understanding of concepts and principles seem to be more likely to effectively convey this knowledge to their students, leading to improved civic education outcomes. John Hattie talks about one aspect of this relationship between teacher test scores and student test scores that may be related to a teacher’s verbal ability, which is a correlate of flexibility, empathy, and content knowledge. (Hattie 2008) 

In the ever-evolving sphere of education, the cultivation of educator expertise through professional development has great potential to improve student learning as well as to enhance pedagogy. Teachers who have a strong command of the subject matter are better able to innovate and introduce creative, effective instructional approaches in their classrooms. By recognizing the pivotal role played by teacher knowledge in shaping student success and by prioritising professional development initiatives, we pave the way for more effective teaching methodologies and enriched learning experiences for the students.


Ahn, Soyeon, and Jinyoung Choi. 2004. “Teachers’ Subject Matter Knowledge as a Teacher Qualification: A Synthesis of the Quantitative Literature on Students’ Mathematics Achievement.” Online Submission.

Hattie, John. 2008. Visible Learning: A Synthesis of Over 800 Meta-Analyses Relating to Achievement. London: Routledge.

Ogbonnaya, Ugorji I., and David Mogari. 2014. “The Relationship Between Grade 11 Students’ Achievement in Trigonometric Functions and Their Teachers’ Content Knowledge.” Mediterranean Journal of Social Sciences, March.

Owen, Diana. 2022. Project Citizen Preliminary Report Year One. Civic Education Research Lab, Georgetown University.