Civics ed must return to top of the list for school priorities

June 10, 2021

Recently – and to its credit – the Utah State Board of Education has been exploring the civic mission of schools with policies like its brand new state board rule that encourages “acknowledging differences by looking for the good in everyone” and “showing due regard for feelings, rights, cultures and traditions”; its 2021 resolution denouncing racism and embracing education equity that emphasizes character education for a “desirable” and “virtuous citizenry”; or even its Portrait of a Graduate that explores the civic characteristics students ought to have upon graduation.

In the early days of our nation public schools were founded with a specific civic mission in mind – not just a vocational or economic mission.

It seems that early leaders understood that without an understanding of our rights and responsibility in government and community, all other efforts would fail.

Unfortunately, the past roughly 200 years have seen a decline in an explicitly civic mission of schools, and the effects have not gone unnoticed.

Newly released 2021 data on Utah civics education shows us there is work to be done in civics education. 

According to new research recently commissioned by Sutherland Institute, Utah parents and teachers consider civics to be among the top three most important academic subjects – alongside math and reading – but unfortunately many also feel that it’s not being taught very well, with over four in 10 Utahns believing that a lack of civics education has led to recent civil unrest.

The research also shows that when it comes to an approach to improving civics education, Utahns value critical thinking, decoding media, and having tolerance and respect for others.

Utah parents and policymakers can use this data to improve Utah public education broadly in a couple of ways.

First, and most obviously, the data suggests some incredibly tangible reforms that may improve the existing civics education structure. These include: increasing curriculum transparency so parents feel like they understand what’s happening at school; extending civics from a one-semester course to a full year; creating a standard curriculum for grades K-6; and pursuing capstone projects and portfolios over standardized testing, while keeping “activism” types of learning until much later in the education process. And Utahns want to see more civics lessons that develop lifelong skills.

There is plenty to unpack in these policy recommendations, including whether and how to implement these correctly or at all. But the point is, there is some state-specific consensus already building, and policymakers would do well to understand this.

Furthermore, for years, social studies – including civics education – has been overshadowed by other subjects, especially those connected to federal testing and accountability structures. Utah parents and teachers reported that civics feels like an afterthought in schools. Government and business organizations have often worked together to generate awareness around the need for STEM. A similar campaign could be done for civics.

Second, this data has broad implications for all aspects of education. In fact, current education controversies can be seen better in the light of our need to strengthen civics education.

Much has been said about critical race theory (CRT) recently – with plenty of anecdotes to suggest that even if CRT is not making it into classrooms, parents have had some legitimate cause for concern. But now that the state is studying CRT more thoroughly and the state board of education has bolstered common sense guidelines to principles of equity in teacher training and academic standards, some other work in education must begin.

Imagine if we viewed schools holistically as institutions with a duty to prepare students for civic and family life – with an emphasis on critical thinking, compromise, tolerance and truth seeking. Some practitioners may argue that schools already seek to do this, but research shows that educators feel civics is a back-burner issue. The problem is, the consequences of a poor civics education do not stay on the back burner. 

Society is getting more complex and faster-paced. To keep up, Utahns need to keep asking questions like: How will we teach students to sift through new information, theories and perspectives – perhaps especially those they will inevitably hear about American history, policy and social issues? How will we teach them to treat others with differing opinions? How will they find common ground with their peers to move their generation toward solutions to problems that will vex them? Without an emphasis on a broad civics mission, these students will be at the whim of the next political zeitgeist or cultural battle.

It is time to restore civics education – both the current coursework and the broader mission of our schools. The successful navigation of the next controversial or perplexing moment depends upon it.

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