‘It’s better to aim high’: Q&A on Utah State School Board’s revision of social studies standards

Written by Derek Monson

August 6, 2021

States with “exemplary” civics and history standards typically include four elements. This is the conclusion from a Sutherland Institute Q&A with Fordham Institute senior researcher David Griffith, who co-authored a recent analysis of every state’s civics and history standards, in which Utah rated “mediocre.”

Griffith’s recommendations include: (1) “at least two full passes through U.S. History, one in the elementary grades and one in higher grades,” (2) “substantive civics content … embedded in the social studies standards for every grade level, starting in Kindergarten,” (3) a year each of both U.S. history and civics in high school, and (4) “spell out what they expect students to learn at every grade level as clearly and specifically as possible.”

This latter recommendation is particularly important for a state like Utah, which is currently evaluating and revising its elementary-level social studies standards. “Specificity is one of the biggest things,” says Griffith. “Many states have overly broad vague standards that are functionally content-less.”

In the elementary grades, that specificity should include things like “addressing the three branches of government in fourth grade and the basics of comparative politics in sixth grade.” But that is just the beginning of how Utah can best improve its elementary social studies standards, including civics and history. “Our civics reviewers suggest injecting some more content … the most important word in that sentence is ‘more.’”

Griffith recognizes the challenge that Fordham’s analysis of civics and history standards poses to states, but he believes taking that challenge head on is worth it. “It’s better to aim high. Part of the point is that we should all be a little obsessed about this stuff.”

Read the full Q&A between Griffith and Sutherland Institute Vice President of Policy Derek Monson below.

Monson: The Fordham Institute report gave Utah’s civics and history standards each a “C” grade and rated them as “mediocre” overall, while strongly recommending “significant revisions” to those standards. Given the strengths and weaknesses the report details in Utah’s civics and history standards, how would you suggest Utah prioritize improvements to its standards?

Griffith: I think my personal priority would be fixing “U.S. Government and Citizenship,” which is when I suspect most Utah students get their deepest exposure to the principles our society is ostensibly founded on.

Per the report, we had two big issues with the standards for this course. First, the organization is average, with the result that some really big points are buried, while seemingly minor topics are overemphasized. For example, one standard deals with federalism, checks and balances, the separation of powers, popular sovereignty, and limited government. Yet elsewhere, an entire standard is devoted to the President’s Cabinet.

Second, some crucial topics are missing. For example, there are no references to due process or equal protection, which are fundamental principles of any free society. Nor is there anything that could be called comparative government. This is a pet peeve, but at a time when the U.S. system is showing signs of stress, I think it’s crucial that students get some exposure to other ways of doing things. For example, places like Alaska and New York City are experimenting with ranked-choice voting, which is the sort of thing students ought to be discussing and debating.

Priority number two is elementary school, where the content is a bit thin, particularly in grades two through four. Honestly, if I could change teacher behavior with the press of a button, I might put elementary school first. But part of the problem is that elementary school teachers are less invested in civics and U.S history than teachers who in higher grades (who are more likely to specialize in social studies). So, in addition to stronger standards in these subjects, a big part of what needs to happen in almost every state is for teachers in these early grades to internalize the notion that they can help save America!

Finally, I think it’s important that policymakers at the state level articulate the recommended sequence for grades 7-12 more clearly, despite the fact that districts have some discretion when it comes to this point. Based on what we saw, it seems like the outline of a solid sequence already exists. But it’s hard to write truly great standards without a specific vision that people can wrap their heads around, so it would help if the state were more explicit.

Monson: Alabama, California, D.C., Massachusetts and Tennessee all rated “exemplary” in both history and civics standards, getting an A-minus grade in each area. What specific things did they do in their standards to merit that rating that Utah and other states could adopt?

Griffith: Well, as it so happens, specificity is one of the biggest things that we talk about in the report because so many states have overly broad vague standards that are functionally content-less. For example, one current Utah standard reads as follows:

Students will use data to evaluate election results and explain election processes and strategies.

Honestly, I’m not quite sure what the word “evaluate” is supposed to mean here. But instead of alluding to “processes,” why not insist that students know about the Electoral College, the Census, and congressional, senatorial, and Presidential terms of office? Similarly, instead of asking them to explain “strategies,” why not insist that they understand what gerrymandering is, how Citizens United reshaped campaign finance, and the likely consequences of laws relating to voter access?

I know there’s a tendency to push back against anything that smacks of micromanaging. But does anyone really think that high school students shouldn’t learn about these things in their Civics classes? What is the argument against such content?

Monson: We noticed that no state got an A grade in either history or civics standards. What would a state have to do to achieve that in your rating system?

Griffith: Honestly, I think we’re philosophically opposed to straight A’s! But having said that, I think our overarching vision is pretty straightforward: Students should make at least two full passes through U.S. History, one in the elementary grades and one in higher grades. Substantive civics content should be embedded in the social studies standards for every grade level, starting in Kindergarten. High school students take at least a year of U.S. History and at least a semester of civics (and really, I would argue that civics should be a yearlong class, so there’s more time for public policy and issue analysis). And of course, we think it’s important that states spell out what they expect students to learn at every grade level as clearly and specifically as possible.

To your point, several “exemplary” states did most of those things. For example, Alabama lays out two full passes through U.S. History, and California has a 900-page curriculum framework for social studies that has very few holes. But of course, even in the best states, there was room for improvement. For example, despite having a pretty impressive document (in a center-left sort of way), California only makes one pass through U.S. History across all thirteen grades, which we just don’t think is advisable given how many texts 7th and 8th and 9th graders will read that will assume a certain level of knowledge.

Anyway, if a state took our favorite things about the top 4-5 states and incorporated them into its standards, I suppose we’d be obliged to give it an “A.” But preparing kids for effective citizenship is our public schools’ most sacred mission – so yeah, we are tough graders. We think this is important.

Monson: Utah’s State School Board is currently undertaking its regular update of K-6 social studies standards, which incorporates history and civics. If you were advising the Utah State School Board on its K-6 social studies standards update regarding history and civics, what specific and actionable recommendations would you make to turn Utah standards for younger grades into some of the best in the nation?

Griffith: Well, in the report, our civics reviewers suggest injecting some more content by addressing the three branches of government in fourth grade and the basics of comparative politics in sixth grade. But I think the most important word in that sentence is “more.” In many places, Utah has the bare bones of a solid outline, but the reason nobody objects to a standard like “profile citizens who rose to greatness as leaders” is that it avoids the difficult choices and lets people assume that whatever they think should be covered will be.

It might be, but it’s better to hash it out (even if it’s a little exhausting). And of course, it’s better to aim high. Part of the point is that we should all be a little obsessed about this stuff.

More Insights

Connect with Sutherland Institute

Join Our Donor Network