June 15, 2021
SALT LAKE CITY—In an effort to understand more about the state of civics education in Utah – its connection to societal distress and to other education topics – Sutherland Institute recently commissioned a multipart study conducted by Heart+Mind Strategies.
In-depth discussion with Utah teachers and parents (over a five-day period) revealed how K-12 educators, as well as parents of K-12 students, feel about the state of social studies and civics education today.
“This data set reveals both good and bad news,” said Christine Cooke Fairbanks, Sutherland Institute’s education policy fellow. “Clearly, Utah civics education needs serious improvement. But the good news is significant: There is high satisfaction among parents with their student’s teachers. And further, parents and teachers identify the same top three most important skills for students to learn before graduation: critical thinking, open-mindedness and acceptance, and responsibilities of being a citizen. Plenty of consensus exists from which we can build. This is incredibly valuable as we seek statewide improvements for education policy and civics education specifically.”
Teachers and parents were recruited to participate in a BrightBoardSM online community led by independent researchers. To assess the distinct views of teachers and of parents, the two groups were considered separately. The following key points were revealed in the qualitative portion of the study.
From both teachers and parents:
- A majority of both teachers and parents link current societal unrest to the idea that students and society no longer possess the fundamental principles of good citizenship.
- Both teachers and parents place high priority on teaching civics education but say schools are mediocre or worse in providing that education.
- Both teachers and parents view civics and history as “essential” to understanding what is happening in our country and how to move forward.
- A supermajority of teachers and parents seek to restore “a robust civics education in our public schools.”
- Both teachers and parents say that the top three most important skills to teach before a student graduates are: critical thinking, open-mindedness and acceptance, and responsibilities of being a citizen.
- Both teachers and parents believe civics education should:
- Begin in elementary school
- Last through high school
- Be integrated into all disciplines/subject matter
- Teachers say funding and resources are an issue when it comes to civics education (i.e., materials).
- Teachers say standardized testing and STEM are taking all the time, attention and resources in our public schools.
- Teachers say civics and history are “overlooked” and “afterthoughts.”
- Teachers say a formal civics curriculum would need to be:
- Desired by the school board and parents
- State required/sponsored/supported
- Elevated in priority with other subjects
- Easy for teachers to execute and utilize
- Parents are highly satisfied with the schools their children attend.
- Parents are highly satisfied with the efforts of teachers and the learning environment.
- Parents are not satisfied with the quality of academics or the subject matter focus.
- Parents have a strong appetite for more access to curriculum and how it is presented.
- There are many concerns among parents about:
- An overemphasis on testing
- Lack of teaching critical thinking
- Few alternatives to STEM
- Teaching biases and values (what to think vs. how to think)
“These discussions suggest where we should focus our policy efforts,” Fairbanks concluded. “Rather than continuing to simply clash over cultural battles or definitions of terms such as equity, we should do all we can to focus reform toward principles of agreement such as critical thinking, decoding and use of media, productive civil debate, open-mindedness to multiple viewpoints, and tolerance and acceptance of others.”
Quotes from the discussion groups:
- “All students will need an education on civics, and they’ll need it longer than any other subject. Students will be citizens and members of a community for their entire lives. They won’t always need computer programming or health science or math.” – Male teacher
- “My students learn almost all of their social studies during the month of May, after testing has been completed.” – Female teacher, parent of 2
- “Math, language arts, and science are always the top priority because they are assessed. I find that social studies is not focused upon until the end of the year as a fill-in between the state testing window and the last day of school. It is not specifically assessed and carries very little weight in curriculum development.” – Male teacher
- “I feel that schools now in general have really shifted to pushing STEM. I get it. STEM is very important, but it seems that most other subjects have or are suffering.” – Male parent
- “I think that we need civics education more now than ever before. Students need to learn about citizenship and what it means to be aware. With the political climate we are in, students need to learn how to decide for themselves rather than just what they are told to believe in.” – Female teacher, parent of 2
- “I would like to know what my kids are being taught about civics so I can discuss with them what they are learning.” – Female, parent of 5
- “A complete curriculum includes a stepped format based on grade level beginning in elementary. By HS, students should be able to pass the same citizenship test we expect noncitizens to pass. Elementary starts with basic understanding of the components of our Constitution. By HS students should be able to expound on a favorite part and research what they don’t understand.” – Male teacher, parent of 1
- “I would love to have access to more materials specifically for social studies. Most of the materials I use in my classroom I have obtained on my own by going outside professional development including Driven2Teach.” – Female teacher, parent of 1
A recent news story pointed out that President Joe Biden has begun his administration with a strong record for getting new federal judges confirmed. Since taking office, he has managed to secure the confirmation of eight federal judges, more than any president since Richard Nixon.
With vision, leadership and sufficient efforts on the ground, we can muster the political will to plant “the Utah way” in the hearts and minds of future generations.
So if a destructive CRT ban is at best a partial policy solution – which may ultimately prove ineffective – what are the alternative (or perhaps additional) policy options that leaders should consider?