Keeping an eye on power: checks and balances for grades 7-12

March 15, 2021

This is part 16 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. This review looks at all the social studies courses in grades 7-12, except for the required one-semester “civics course” titled United States Government and Citizenship, which was analyzed separately. 

“The truth was that all men having power ought to be distrusted to a certain degree,” said James Madison during a debate. Madison was one of America’s Founding Fathers, the fourth president of the United States, co-author of the Federalist Papers, and often referred to as the Father of the Constitution.

Such a quote sheds light into one of the minds who created the system of government we have today. It’s no surprise that the Founders created a government that corrals and channels power to very specific actions through a system of checks and balances.

The Utah State Board of Education is currently in the standards revision process for the Utah state social studies standards for elementary school grades only (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 the concept of checks and balances in the United States Government and Citizenship course, usually taken during a student’s senior year.

To help assess how well the current standards help students fulfill their duties in civil society and government with regard to checks and balances, we searched for mentions of checks and balances: (1) among the three branches of federal government or (2) between state/local and federal governments.

Social studies in grades 7-12 (except for U.S. Government & Citizenship course)

Checks and balances among the three branches of federal government

When it comes to teaching students about the concept of checks and balances at the federal level, there are a few key standards that may accomplish this in a pretty direct way. For example, one standard asks students to describe the structure and function of the government created by the Constitution. Similarly, another standard prompts students to explain how ideas, events and compromises during development and ratification are reflected in the document. Another, from the Utah Studies course, has students look at the appropriate roles of local, state and federal government to address different issues of today.

Checks and balances between state/local and federal governments (federalism)

For obvious reasons, the standard from the Utah Studies course that asks students to analyze the appropriate roles of local, state and federal government will also inform a discussion about federalism, or the relationship between the federal government and state governments.

Utah Studies also includes discussion about Utah’s path toward statehood as well as discussion about its unique state constitution, two discussions which are linked because the careful creation of the latter made possible the former. Students who study the process by which Utah gained statehood may tackle issues regarding the power play between the federal government and state governments.


Thus, Utah’s grade 7-12 social studies standards prompt students to consider checks and balances – both horizontally and vertically – in direct and meaningful ways. This is complemented by what is taught in the civics course.

(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

UT Standard 2.7

Students will identify the political challenges that delayed Utah’s statehood and explain how these challenges were overcome.

UT Standard 3.1

Students will identify the civic virtues and principles codified by the Utah Constitution.

UT Standard 4.2

Students will make an evidence-based argument regarding the appropriate roles of local, state, and federal governments in resolving a current and/or historical issue.

U.S. 1 Standard 4.1

Students will explain how the ideas, events, and compromises which led to the development and ratification of the Constitution are reflected in the document itself.

U.S. 1 Standard 4.2

Students will describe the structure and function of the government that the Constitution creates.

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