Mask mandates. Instruction on race. Utah’s civic education is under debate. It’s time to seize the moment

Written by Rick B. Larsen

June 7, 2021

Originally published by Deseret News.

Right now, Utah is experiencing challenging — even combative — debates over social issues and appropriate K-12 education curriculum. At its core, this challenging moment has to do with parents feeling a loss of control over the education and well-being of their children.

Whether the issue is mask mandates, in-person learning, or curriculum on race and gender that seems more divisive than instructive, it is fair to say that parents are upset.

However, it may be surprising to learn that parents and teachers share most of the same concerns.

Early this year, Sutherland commissioned an independent, statewide study exploring our understanding of civics and citizen engagement, and the connections between civics and current unrest. The study included responses from Utah’s general population, and separately, responses from in-depth discussions with both parents and teachers.

What the study found should give us all cause for hope. It revealed areas of both trust and agreement upon which Utahns have an opportunity to build.

Here are some key findings from the report which make the case that today’s most combative issues may be the symptoms — rather than the real problem — and that long-term solutions lie in regaining an understanding of governance and civil dialogue.

Initially, just over 40% of Utahns (parents and teachers) connected a lack of civics education to civil unrest. However, while a minority initially made the above connection, there is a much stronger belief that we need to reprioritize civics.

  • Civics education was identified as a top three priority for K-12 students — alongside math and English.
  • Most believe schools do not place a priority on teaching civics compared to other subjects.
  • How civics is being taught was rated as inadequate.
  • There is high-level support for “restoring a robust civics education curriculum in our schools.”

What do Utahns expect of civics? They want to see civics lessons that help develop lifelong skills and attitudes, including:

  • An understanding of laws and individual rights followed by responsibilities and expectations of citizens.
  • Tolerance for others, historical context of government and the powers and limits of government.
  • Activism should come later — or at the very end of the civics educational process.

How do we get there?

  • More than half of respondents would accept state guidelines on civics education curriculum provided to teachers by the state.
  • Transparency is critical — parents want to know what is being taught in the classroom.
  • Utahns prefer participation in capstone activities or programs over standardized testing when civics education is being evaluated.
  • A majority support a variety of reforms, including requiring a full year of civics education in high school and establishing a formal curriculum for grades K-6

And as for the trust that serves Utah well:

  • Nearly two-thirds of parents give Utah schools high marks.
  • People in Utah — particularly parents — are generally satisfied with schools, including teachers, other curricula and adaptations during COVID.

Rather than respond to every symptomatic problem — and there are many — the data suggests that we should move toward rediscovering, reviving and reprioritizing civics and history education. Our goal should be to build on the trust that exists between parents and teachers — and together engage and empower every Utahn to be involved in this critical effort for the rising generation.

Parents need to understand who creates the curriculum in your child’s school, and how standards are set. Let’s confirm what is being taught, and by whom. Let’s put a pause on subjects or theories that could be harmful. And let’s develop factual, sequential and contextual curriculum.

In Utah — unless we allow the bonds of affection to be severed — parents trust and respect teachers, and teachers understand the weight of their responsibility.

Sutherland calls on parents, teachers, administrators and elected officials to seize this moment; to build on the publicly expressed trust that exists by demonstrating and practicing civics, personal responsibility and representative government.

We encourage all stakeholders — especially parents and teachers — to prioritize the students of Utah and come together. Through transparency and principled debate — that holds at its center the welfare of our children, families and civic institutions — we can far exceed the short-term results of politicized battles.

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