Are Utah social studies standards doing their job?

Teaching freedom of the press in grades 7-12

February 4, 2021

This is part 9 in Sutherland’s new series that seeks to examine how Utah education standards prepare students to be active citizens. In this part, we analyze current social studies standards for grades 7-12. While there are a range of social studies courses in grades 7-12, we are first looking exclusively at the standards for the required one-semester “civics course” titled United States Government and Citizenship.

James Madison called the freedom of the press “one of the great bulwarks of liberty.”

That’s because freedom of the press is a way to keep government in check. Our republic is expressly aimed at limiting the power of the government in order to protect the liberty of individuals.

Yet, it’s no secret that the media has come under close scrutiny, especially in the very recent years, as people claim that different outlets seek to promote a particular narrative over another. People who consider themselves left-leaning or right-leaning each point fingers at particular outlets, and many Americans feel overwhelmed by trying to understand the world around them. Having the critical thinking skills and media literacy to navigate the constant flow of information is crucial to being able to understand our world and participate in it. This is especially so for our students.

The Utah State Board of Education is currently in the standards revision process for the Utah State Social Studies standards only for elementary school grades (kindergarten through sixth grade), but we think it is helpful to review our state approach to civics education at all levels of education. Sutherland Institute is seeking to understand how well Utah’s current social studies standards help students fulfill their duties in civil society and government. For this review, we are specifically looking at freedom of the press.

To assess how well the current Utah standards help students fulfill their duties in civil society and government, specifically with an understanding of the freedom of the press and media literacy, we have decided to look for two main factors: (1) media literacy (vetting sources, media bias, critical thinking skills, etc.) and (2) the basic concept of the freedom of the press.

United States Government and Citizenship course

Media literacy like vetting sources, media bias, critical thinking skills, etc.

None of the standards for this course directly address media literacy or anything more specific, like vetting media sources, looking for media bias, or the need for critical thinking skills when approaching the media. There is one standard that prompts students to explain “the purpose and importance of fulfilling civics responsibilities,” including “remaining well-informed.” This phrase suggests a possible discussion about engaging the media to stay informed but does little to ensure that it’s a robust topic for learning or discussion.

The basic concept of the freedom of the press

The freedom of the press is not directly referenced in the standards for this course. A couple of standards prompt students to look at “ideas” that may have influenced the Constitution or trace how the application of case law spells out the rights in the Bill of Rights or examine perspectives on a current rights-related issue, which means that freedom of the press could be taught – but not necessarily.

Conclusion

In short, Utah’s grade 7-12 United States Government and Citizenship standards do not directly prompt students to learn about freedom of the press, nor do they prompt learning on media literacy. Today’s students are inundated with information, particularly political opinions and rhetoric. This reality means it is crucial that students are taught how to think critically about what is offered to them through “the press” in all its many forms. These standards could be improved by including more direct references to the freedom of the press as well as media literacy.

(Note: What’s a “standard”? It is a broad statement of what students are expected to understand and/or know how to do within a certain discipline.

What’s an “objective”? An objective is a more focused description of what students need to know and/or be able to do within a given standard.

What’s an “indicator”? These are measurable and observable student actions that enable teachers to judge whether a student has mastered a particular objective.)

Jump to different parts of this series:

Utah Core Standards, Objectives and Indicators referenced:

Source: Utah Core Standards, Utah State Board of Education

U.S. GOV Standard 1.1: Students will explain how documents, challenges, events and ideas such as the rule of law, the social contract, compromise, the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, Shays’ Rebellion, and the Federalist Papers significantly influence the United States Constitution.

U.S. GOV Standard 2.1: Students will use historic and modern case studies, including Supreme Court cases, amendment initiatives, and legislation to trace the application of civil liberties, civil rights, and responsibilities spelled out in the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and other amendments.

U.S. GOV Standard 2.2: Students will examine various perspectives on a current rights-related issue; take a position; defend that position using the Constitution and Bill of Rights, historical precedents, Supreme Court decisions, and other relevant resources; and share that position, when possible, with relevant stakeholders.

U.S. GOV Standard 2.3: Students will explain the purpose and importance of fulfilling civic responsibilities, including serving on juries; voting; serving on boards, councils, and commissions; remaining well-informed; contacting elected officials; and other duties associated with active citizenship.

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