Key takeaways: How can standards for Utah social studies and civics education be improved?

March 26, 2021

During the 2021 Utah legislative session, the Legislature passed HCR 15 – Concurrent Resolution Emphasizing the Importance of Civics Education, which includes a goal for members of an informal working group to “review how civics education is taught in Utah’s public education system and invite them to share what they have learned.”

In a similar spirit, starting last fall, Sutherland Institute decided to review the Utah social studies standards in grades K-12 by analyzing them for how well they address five fundamental American principles and share what we’ve learned. The five principles we studied were (1) freedom of speech, (2) freedom of religion, (3) freedom of the press, (4) equality, and (5) checks and balances.

We published reviews for each of these five topics within K-6 social studies standards, 7-12 social studies standards, and the standards for the required one-semester civics course titled U.S. Government and Citizenship.

Here are a few key takeaways summarizing what we learned:

Freedom of speech

  • Utah’s elementary K-6 Social Studies standards offer a substantive approach to helping students navigate a pluralistic society and the ability to consider different viewpoints, but a more robust approach would introduce in these early grades America’s foundational documents like the First Amendment in the Bill of Rights or the concept of freedom of speech.
  • The standards for Utah’s grade 7-12 social studies courses [minus the United States Government and Citizenship standards] incorporate a very modest number of references to primary source founding documents that teach about free speech or require civic discourse skills. The standards for the social studies courses in grades 7-12 could increase review of references to the foundational principles of free speech.
  • On the other hand, Utah’s grade 7-12 United States Government and Citizenship (the civics course) standards do a fairly good job of incorporating primary source founding documents. Still, the standards do not address issues like the culture of free speech, speech of elected officials on private platforms, or, even directly, what the basic limits and privileges of free speech are, which is incredibly important today. Course standards also do not prompt much in the way of discussion and debate and instead focus on content knowledge.

Recommendations: Freedom of speech may be a difficult subject to teach the youngest grades; however, in the later K-6 grade social studies standards, students could be introduced to the existence of a Bill of Rights, which touches on freedom of speech. Grades 7-12 standards could incorporate more primary source documents in order to learn about free speech protections. The United States Government and Citizenship course, specifically, could address issues like the culture of free speech, speech of elected officials on private platforms, or, even directly, the basic limits and privileges of free speech, since these concepts apply to a robust civic life.

Freedom of religion

  • Utah’s K-6 social studies standards acknowledge religion. In fact, acknowledgment of the existence and impact of religion on the world’s history and on today’s culture ramp up as grade levels continue from kindergarten to the sixth grade. Standards also more substantively address the freedom of religion in the older elementary grades. To build a foundation for one of America’s preeminent and fundamental rights in these earlier grades, Utah K-6 standards could more substantially incorporate direct references to freedom of religion.
  • When it comes to Utah’s grade 7-12 social studies standards (again, not looking at the civics course yet), they will likely offer students a robust introduction into religious literacy, and religion as a worldwide reality, as well as some exposure to the concept of religious liberty. The religious liberty component could be increased by connecting this first freedom to the other fundamental freedoms we enjoy and seek to protect.
  • Utah’s civics course, which is captured in the grade 7-12 United States Government and Citizenship standards, does not directly reference religion or freedom of religion, nor how this first freedom interacts with other liberties. While it may be difficult to fit a discussion of religion(s) into a civics course, certainly a weightier discussion of the relationship between religious freedom and government could be included.

Recommendations: While Utah’s K-6 standards do a good job of acknowledging the reality of religion, they could more substantially incorporate direct references to the existence of a Bill of Rights, which touches on the freedom of religion. In grades 7-12, the religious liberty component could be increased by connecting this first freedom to the other fundamental freedoms we enjoy and seek to protect. Similarly, the United States Government and Citizenship standards could more directly reference religion or freedom of religion and how this first freedom interacts with other liberties.

Freedom of the press

  • In general, Utah’s K-6 social studies standards do not offer direct references to media literacy. Instead, some objectives and indicators discuss ideas that relate tangentially to these topics. In later elementary grades some standards discuss the benefits of citizenship and the ideas within the Bill of Rights, which leaves the possibility of learning about freedom of the press. In general, the standards in these grades should offer a more comprehensive preparation for students to understand the power of the media, skills for navigating the types of media available, and knowledge about the freedom of the press.
  • Utah’s grade 7-12 Social Studies courses may invite students to think about media literacy skills, but the topic may be limited based simply on the number of standards that deal with the topic. When it comes to the topic of a free press, there are a few more standards that may lead students to discuss the provisions and principles that relate to it. In a world that’s becoming increasingly difficult to navigate with regard to media sources, social media and the principle of free press, Utah standards could increase efforts to address those issues specifically.
  • When just looking at Utah’s grade 7-12 United States Government and Citizenship course, 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 critical thinking when it comes to “the press” in all its many forms. Standards could be improved by including more direct references to freedom of the press and media literacy.

Recommendations: Obviously, it can be tough to teach the youngest grades about the legal and political issues of freedom of the press; still, the later grades in K-6 could offer an early introduction to understanding the power of the media and skills for navigating the types of media available, since even at these ages they are exposed to social media. Grades 7-12 could increase direct discussion of the principles of a free press and how it relates to media sources and social media. This same recommendation goes for standards in the United States Government and Citizenship course.

Equality before the law

  • As the grades continue from kindergarten to sixth grade, Utah’s K-6 social studies standards build in substance about the concept of equality before the law. Rather than mentioning specific amendments to the Constitution that build a framework of protections of equality before the law, the standards give prompts that could lead to a discussion about the 13th, 14th, 15th, and 19th amendments and the ideals that they aim to achieve.
  • The concept of equality is covered significantly in the standards for Utah’s Social Studies grade 7-12 courses. Both directly and indirectly standards prompt a discussion about equality all throughout the courses. However, the standards are less likely to directly reference amendments from the U.S. Constitution that enshrine these protections. It’s clear that the theme of equality is adequately addressed, though there could be more direct references to the codification of this American principle.
  • Utah’s grade 7-12 United States Government and Citizenship standards do not give a very thorough treatment of the concept of “equality before the law.” These standards could be improved by providing direct references to amendments that implemented the Declaration’s vision of all people being created equal, or a discussion of their purposes which helped secure equality before the law.

Recommendations: While the topic of equality is covered substantially in the grades 7-12 social studies standards, there could be more direct references to the amendments in the U.S. Constitution that have helped enshrine those protections. Likewise, the United States Government and Citizenship course could incorporate more references to primary sources to bolster understanding of equality in America’s Constitution.

Checks and balances

  • Other than in fifth grade, Utah’s K-6 social studies standards do not discuss checks and balances and federalism in great detail. Checks and balances are discussed directly in fifth grade, but the concepts of federalism are not. These standards might be improved by including those concepts in earlier grades.
  • Utah’s grade 7-12 social studiesstandards prompt students to learn about checks and balances in government – both horizontally (three branches of government) and vertically (federalism) – in direct and meaningful ways. This is complemented by what’s taught in the civics course.
  • The standards for the one semester civics course provide a fairly robust discussion of checks and balances. Certainly, in comparison with the other reviews in the series – which discuss how well this course addresses freedom of speech, religious liberty, freedom of the press and equality before the law – these standards provide students with a good foundation on this particular topic. Thus, in total, it appears – based on the standards – that rather than discussing the legal, political or social realities of our type of government, the civics course is mostly focused on the mechanics and functions of governmental bodies.

Recommendations: Because checks and balances and federalism are somewhat abstract concepts, they can be challenging to teach in grades K-6; however, the older grades in K-6, especially fifth and sixth grade, could introduce more substantial discussions of checks and balances and federalism to prepare them for secondary education. Standards for grades 7-12 do an excellent job of covering the topics of checks and balances.

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