2021 legislative session needs to address civics ed … here’s how

January 15, 2021

Last week’s Capitol riot was distressing for Americans. The past year was already tense with the uncertainties of a pandemic, riots in major cities across the nation, and a divided election. Most Americans were hopeful that 2021 would start off on a better foot. 

But we learned quickly that it will take more than wishful thinking to restore unity and secure liberty to our nation.

According to a piece written by American Enterprise Institute scholar Rick Hess, achieving those lofty ends will require an educated citizenry. He said, “Meanwhile, it too often seems that our schools and colleges—which should play an outsized role in teaching the responsibilities of citizens and the discipline of democracy—have instead opted to focus on teaching those things that instructors find more gratifying or students find more appealing. The consequences have been dire.”  

Ensuring that Utah civics education is adequate will take a statewide commitment from more than just the Legislature (and it’s usually better when it comes from more local decisionmakers), and it will demand that we avoid simplistic solutions about teachers or schools simply needing to “do better.”

This upcoming legislative session will undoubtedly address civics education. Here are three ideas for Utah leaders to consider.

Study Utah’s civics education

This year the Legislature should commit to creating a task force to study Utah’s civics education. Our civic health needs to be addressed, and soon. In fact, during the 2020 legislative session, the topic of civics education was already ramping up, with lawmakers debating the civics test (the proposal to remove the test failed) and the idea of “civic engagement” (the proposal to create a pilot program for this passed), but legislators ultimately voted down the creation of a task force to study civics education in the state.

Since then, the civic health of our nation has been seen more clearly, and it’s not good. A statewide study should thoughtfully ask where we’d like to go, where we’ve already been (character and civic education language exists in Utah code), what we’re already doing well, and where we can improve. It can include a discussion of how and why this topic has been overshadowed (even nationally) by other well-intentioned initiatives and discuss how to restore it in our classrooms. A robust study should identify which levers of government, policymakers or school leadership are most appropriate for addressing certain problems. Not all solutions should come from the Legislature, and many could come from local decisionmakers. Some of the responsibility is certainly on families and other community institutions.

Increase curriculum transparency

The more informed parents are about their student’s education – including the curriculum or instructional materials being used at their child’s school – the better they can help navigate students through it. In fact, more states (Arizona, Texas, Tennessee) are beginning to have discussions about curriculum transparency – basically proposals that give parents access to the textbooks, readings or instructional materials being used in class. Some of these proposals so far include letting parents pick up materials in person for a certain period of time for review, while another approach is to post online the materials that were used in that course from the year before.

This has implication for civics education. Undoubtedly, as parents, education advocates, and policymakers turn their attention toward civics education, there will inevitably be battles over the content in the curriculum. These clashes are likely to stem from the cultural pressures of the day and political preferences of parents or teachers.

Therefore, it’s also politically prudent to have curriculum transparency. Rather than civics education content becoming a zero-sum game, where fights focus on what a few leaders choose for an entire district or school, parents bear the responsibility to find out what’s being taught and make education decisions accordingly. Parents have the primary responsibility for educating their children – while the state plays an important, though secondary, role – so efforts to inform parents make sense.

Determine the right approach for experiential civics

A new hot topic in civics education is the idea of “action civics” – sometimes called “project-based civics” or “civic engagement.” The idea is that students learn about civics as they tackle political or societal issues in real-world contexts. At the top of the list for reasons why proponents like this approach is that action civics can make civics relevant for students. Certainly, experiential learning has value – but, as some critics say, not all experiences need be in real world context. Moot court or mock Senate can give students experiential learning. Others criticize the approach for pushing political activism (particularly biased activism) over basic content knowledge.

At the very least, if this approach finds its way into Utah classrooms, education leaders should think through ways to make content learning a necessary companion to action civics as well as contemplate how teachers can be adequately trained to use this method. Like anything else, action civics is not a panacea, so it’s worth considering the downsides as well as the benefits of this policy proposal.

Best of luck to the Utah state legislators this year!

More Insights

Make a Difference

Thanks to a generous operating grant, 100 percent of your gift furthers important research, education efforts and public policy work.

Donate Today

Select Payment Method
Personal Info

Credit Card Info
This is a secure SSL encrypted payment.

Donation Total: $25.00 Monthly

Connect with Sutherland Institute

Join Our Donor Network