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Insights into civics education from UVU’s ‘State of Civics’ report

Written by Derek Monson

June 10, 2022

Utah Valley University’s Center for Constitutional Studies (CCS) recently published two reports analyzing Utahns’ knowledge of basic civics facts and the state of civics education in Utah public schools, based on surveys of Utah adults and social studies educators. In their conclusions about the state of civics education – also highlighted in news reporting – the authors focused on the disconnect or gap between “teachers’ commitment to civics instruction and the adult population’s inability to recall basic civics facts.”

The CCS report’s finding that Utah educators are committed to and prioritize civics education echoes what Sutherland Institute analysis has concluded from opinion survey data and focused discussion with parents and educators: Parents, teachers and other Utahns generally all agree that civics education in public schools should be prioritized in a manner comparable to math and language arts.

The CCS educator survey and report create an opportunity, when combined with additional data and analysis, for unique insights into civics education in Utah. Those insights include: (1) Utah needs increased emphasis on and investment in civics education in elementary grades; (2) improving civics standards within Utah’s social studies standards can greatly influence and improve civics instruction in the classroom; and (3) Utah civics educators have concrete needs that must be filled for sustainable and consistent improvement in civics education.

Emphasizing civics in elementary grades

The CCS survey included several results that illustrate the need for increased emphasis on civics in elementary grades.

Elementary teachers – who often teach math, language arts and/or science in addition to social studies and civics – were asked what topics they include in their instruction, choosing from a list of 12 basic civics topics:

  • Facts of the Utah Constitution
  • Facts of the U.S. Constitution
  • Early American history
  • Modern American history
  • Early constitutional ideas or issues
  • Modern constitutional ideas or issues
  • The Bill of Rights and other constitutional amendments, and the amendment process
  • Economic literacy
  • Local politics and community participation
  • The United States and its global context
  • Current events
  • Current elections

On average, Utah elementary educators report being able to cover only 5 of these 12 areas, or about 42% of basic civics topics. By comparison, secondary social studies teachers generally covered an average of 7.4 of these 12 topics (62%), while secondary educators who specifically teach U.S. history, U.S. government and civics covered 8.3 of these topics, on average (69%).

One reason for this gap of civics coverage is the time that elementary educators have for teaching basic civics. In the CCS survey, elementary educators reported spending 23% of their instruction time on civics. In some Utah schools, elementary teachers report having “been asked to drop social studies completely in order to give more time to [language arts] and math instruction and/or in response to the pressures of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

These levels of civics education inputs in elementary schools make sense when you consider how much emphasis elementary math and language arts receive, as measured by public funding, testing/accountability, and available professional development resources. The lack of resources, especially professional development, is particularly acute for elementary civics teachers. As various elementary teachers reported in the CCS survey: “I don’t have any resources” … “I provide my own resources” … “any resources would be nice.”

The second-tier status of civics in elementary schools contrasts starkly with the historical civics vision and mission that motivated the creation of publicly funded schools in America.

Taken together, it suggests a need to increase emphasis on civics at the elementary level. This will inherently involve increasing the financial investment in civics as well as revising state and local policies impacting civics education in elementary grades.

The impact of standards on civics education

One state policy in need of reform is state civics standards reflected within Utah’s social studies standards. The CCS survey asked social studies educators to rate whether state standards or mandates influence the way they teach civics. In elementary schools, 72% of teachers agreed or strongly agreed that they do. In secondary schools, 79% of teachers said the same.

One anecdote from an open-ended question about state standards’ influence on civics instruction in the classroom paints a picture of how these statistics play out on the ground: “If I want to teach something, I check to see if it is in harmony with state, district, and school standards. If it is not, I don’t go there.”

Clearly, state civics standards will impact, if not drive, the quality of civics instruction happening in classrooms. This points to the conclusion that the quality of Utah civics standards is critical to ensuring high quality civics education in public schools.

By one measure, those standards have much room for improvement. In a 2021 Fordham Institute analysis of state standards in U.S. history and civics, Utah’s standards were rated “mediocre.” This is, however, only one perspective on Utah’s standards. Different approaches to grading or rating standards may draw different conclusions.

But the impact of state standards on civics instruction means that any low rating from an organization with expertise in standards should cause concern and suggest potential reforms for Utah’s civics standards. Any improvement in those standards is likely to drive subsequent improvement in civics instruction in the classroom.

The concrete needs of Utah civics educators

However, improving civics standards brings with it the need to meet the resource needs of educators to equip them to teach to the improved standards. The CCS survey offers some direction about what those resources should look like.

The civics resources that elementary teachers specifically asked for most were content and textbooks and prepared lesson plans. For secondary teachers, the most desired resources were content and textbooks and video/virtual/online resources.

Additionally, civics educators’ experience with professional development suggests this is a significant need as well, particularly for elementary teachers. Only 28% of elementary teachers in Utah report having a professional development experience that “ha[s] been particularly useful to their teaching of civics.” Meaningful professional development is more common for secondary civics teachers but still relatively underwhelming at 69%.

The broad lack of impactful professional development at the elementary level and for 3 in 10 secondary civics teachers, combined with the specific resource wish list laid out by Utah civics teachers, point to concrete needs for educators. It is likely that consistent and sustained improvement in civics education will require the investment of tax dollars to meet these needs.

Conclusion

When combined with additional data and analysis, the civics educator responses to the CCS survey point to the need to: (1) increase emphasis on civics in elementary grades, (2) reform and improve state civics standards and (3) fulfill the needs of Utah’s elementary and secondary civics teachers. These actions bring with them political challenges and the need for a long-term commitment to improving civics education in Utah.

Such policy reforms may also prove to be necessary but not sufficient. Curriculum transparency that builds the parent-teacher partnership and an expanded menu of education choice options that depoliticize the classroom are also needed.

But taken together, this lengthy list of significant policy reforms promises to restore and revitalize the civics mission of public schools in Utah. That aspiration is worth the investment and long-term political commitment.

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