Report calls Utah civics, history standards ‘mediocre’ – despite their strengths – compared with other states

Written by Derek Monson

July 22, 2021

NPR recently published a news story about a Fordham Institute report rating state K-12 civics and history standards across the U.S. based on their content, rigor, clarity and organization. Four states (Alabama, California, Massachusetts and Tennessee) along with the District of Columbia earned an exemplary rating, with an A- grade for both civics and history standards. Utah was rated “mediocre” with a C grade in both areas.

Some of the noted strengths in the overviews of the top-rated states include “rigorous content,” “thoughtful sequencing,” “straightforward/intuitive organization,” “explanatory depth” and “strong commitment to Black History.” Utah’s overview, on the other hand, notes that while “most topics receive broad coverage, there is little detail or depth, and some essential content is missing.”

Utah’s strengths in civics and history standards include mentioning many or most key topics, asking students to analyze a specific civics issue, and offering two full U.S. history sequences (in grade 5 and middle/high school). Weaknesses in Utah’s civics and history standards include “too little civics content,” lack of detail, no suggested sequencing in middle or high school standards, and a lack of emphasis on history-related research and analysis skills.

In late 2020, Sutherland Institute published a topic-by-topic review of Utah’s K-12 social studies standards and how well they do in the area of civics, noting various strengths and weaknesses. The key takeaways from Sutherland’s standards review included several strengths: acknowledgement of the role of religion in society and substantial coverage of equality as well as checks and balances in later grades. Echoing some of the feedback in the Fordham report, our review also noted that areas of improvement for Utah’s civics standards include a general lack of references to primary source documents as well as a lack of depth in basic civics subjects like freedom of speech, religion and the press – especially in younger grades. 

Fortunately, both the Fordham standards report and Sutherland’s standards review come at a time when Utah’s State Board of Education is reviewing and updating the state’s K-6 social studies standards. The constructive criticism offered by both efforts offer standards review committee members and elected state board members an opportunity to improve the rigor, sequencing, depth and clarity of civics and history standards to better guide teachers and help students learn about American history and civics beginning in early grades. Recent evidence from a Sutherland public opinion survey suggests that updating standards to prioritize civics and history in line with math and language arts is the desire of parents and teachers alike, including those in Utah’s communities of color.

The bottom line is that while Utah’s civics and history standards are not the worst, neither are they the best. This reality, confirmed by multiple independent reviews over the last year, should inform school board efforts to revise and improve Utah’s social studies standards.

Utah can join other states in having standards that lay out a path to a high-quality, rigorous, clear and well-sequenced education in U.S. history and civics. It will require Utah parents, voters, and both elected and appointed education leaders to show a commitment and determination to working through difficult conversations. All of them will need to bring the best knowledge to bear on the issue, with a prudent understanding of what current political limitations will allow. But if we have the political will, our state can be an example to the nation of how to navigate the crucible of polarization and division by forging a vision for educating and forming the next generation of free citizens, leaders and problem solvers.

Not only do Utah students deserve such an education, but the current social and political turmoil demands it. It is up to us to make the choice to provide it.

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