Surge in controversies over U.S. history is an opening for Utah ed policy

Written by Christine Cooke

September 24, 2020

National attention on the state of civics and history knowledge is surging – and it can help states improve civics and history education.

Recently, the Trump administration launched the 1776 Commission to champion patriotic education. Within days of this announcement, the Annenberg Public Policy Center published its annual survey with results showing Americans can name more of their rights and government bodies than in previous years, likely due to the social and civic upheaval in 2020. And, in a few years, the Declaration of Independence will celebrate its 250th anniversary – many are asking how Americans will celebrate that.

People are acutely aware of the debate over the American national narrative right now: Are we a nation fatally flawed from its inception, or a country successfully fulfilling its founding ideals? The winning narrative impacts whether a generation believes we ought to scrap our current government or commit more deeply to it in order to reach its promises.

And the battle is won, in large part, through education – typically a state policy area.

The good news is that the all-consuming national attention on American history and civics enables the opportunity for states to act. Pathways for Utah schools to improve include standards reform, curriculum transparency, and education choice. Here are potential, simple next steps for Utah.

Revising social studies standards

The Utah State Board of Education can revise the state’s social studies standards to adjust for the apparent gap in understanding of America’s founding and government. (While the Annenberg survey results show impressive gains this year, the percentages are still startlingly unimpressive. For example, more than half of Americans surveyed cannot name freedom of religion or freedom of the press as First Amendment rights. Almost half cannot name all three branches of government.)

Utah’s state board is due to revise the academic standards for social studies, which they do every few years. Of course, standards are not curriculum, but they help guide how curriculum is used in classrooms. Therefore, amid civil strife, and during the already scheduled revision process, it makes sense for the board to respond accordingly. They should seek to bolster understanding of America’s founding, our government structure, and even American exceptionalism in the face of a recognition of its flaws. For example, younger grades (K-2) could include standards that more explicitly teach directly from founding documents and concepts. Standards could further emphasize the First Amendment’s right to freedom of speech and the corresponding practice of respecting differences of opinion.

Encouraging curriculum transparency

Public education – hopefully at the local level, without mandates – could increase transparency of instructional materials. When it comes to K-12 education – an endeavor over which parents have a fundamental right and responsibility – transparency for parents is crucial. This is especially important with subjects like social studies that wade into today’s most pressing and controversial cultural, societal and policy issues. It happens to also be the academic subject over which our country is torn (think of the 1619 Project and 1776 Unites) – so parents may be especially interested to know what’s going on. Transparency doesn’t mean parents ought to dictate what the school teaches, but it means they should at least be made aware of what is being taught to their children by their public option (or private option, since private schools could do this too).

Currently, the state board provides a list of suggested instructional materials that LEAs (local education agencies, or districts) can choose from, but there is no requirement for LEAs to use any of these materials.

If they haven’t made such efforts already, LEAs and schools could decide to share or disclose materials being used in the classroom. Of course, such information ought to be given upon request, but LEAs could also proactively provide it upfront. Such transparency gets at the heart of parental rights and involvement in their child’s education.

Increasing education choice

Which brings us to education choice. Utah can continue to increase education choice policies (like education savings accounts or tax credits for home-schoolers) and create a list of history and civics resources with descriptions and reviews. Much like curriculum transparency in public school, equipping parents with additional resources helps families make informed decisions about civics education. Parents have a wide range of opinions on how their children ought to be taught in all subjects, and history and civics are no different.

The reality is that no one state or local education policy will make every family happy (think of the Common Core or sex education debates). Educational choice doesn’t require a zero-sum decision about what and how information will be taught, and increased options can lead to the greatest satisfaction for parents. The state could also support choice policies by providing a list of education materials for families with corresponding descriptions and reviews of various civics education resources so parents can best navigate their options.

Considering ways to improve history and civics through public policy can be contentious. However, some policies are common sense – like improving the state standards as they are in process of revision, improving transparency, and increasing choices so parents can vet the resources available. Other, more creative polices can offer improvements as well. We look forward to seeing how Utah continues the conversation about history and civics education in 2021.

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