Are Utah social studies standards doing their job?

Teaching checks and balances in grades 7-12

February 10, 2021

This is part 11 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. While there are a range of social studies courses in grades 7-12, we are first looking exclusively at the standards for the required one-semester “civics course” titled United States Government and Citizenship.

In Federalist Paper No. 51, James Madison wrote, “Ambition must be made to counteract ambition.”

Put a little differently, government power must be made to counteract other government power.

This is why the creators of the U.S. Constitution built into the governing document a unique set of mechanisms that prevent the concentration of power in any particular governmental branch or entity.

Understanding this concept is crucial to understanding America’s form of government, and it’s something high school graduates need to learn in order to protect and participate in our republic.

The Utah State Board of Education is currently in the standards revision process for the Utah State Social Studies standards only for elementary school grades (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.

United States Government and Citizenship course

Checks and balances among the three branches of federal government

The good news is the standards for this course directly address the concept of checks and balances, especially at the federal level. For example, one standard asks students to “describe the structure of the United States’ form of government as a compound constitutional republic, including the ideas of federalism; checks and balances; separation of powers … and limited government.”

Another standard discusses the “ideas” that strongly influenced the United States Constitution, which could lead to further discussions about the checks and balances built into the structure.

One standard delves into “judicial review,” which would further flesh out the power of the judiciary (most notably the Supreme Court) to review the actions of the legislative (usually Congress) and the executive (e.g., an executive decision by the president) branches.

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

The concept of federalism – most notably the different authorities between the federal and state governments – is also addressed multiple times in the standards.

For starters, many of the standards addressed above would introduce the rationale behind checks and balances, which is essentially the need to limit power. But further, two other standards specifically address the vertical power relationship in federalism. For example, one says that students will “explain the distribution of power among national, state, tribal and local governments in order to identify how needs are met by governance systems.”

Another standard focuses entirely on the elected positions at the local level like mayors, council members, sheriffs, county commissioners, etc. It further states that students will explain how local government roles differ from state and federal roles. In short, it discusses the same vertical structure but emphasizes the principle at the most localized level of government.

Conclusion

Utah’s grade 7-12 United States Government and Citizenship standards provide a fairly robust discussion of checks and balances. Certainly, in comparison to the other reviews in this 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. 

(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

U.S. GOV Standard 1.1: Students will explain how documents, challenges, events and ideas such as the rule of law, the social contract, compromise, the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, Shays’ Rebellion, and the Federalist Papers significantly influence the United States Constitution.

U.S. GOV Standard 1.2: Students will describe the structure of the United States’ form of government as a compound constitutional republic, including the ideas of federalism; checks and balances; separation of powers; commerce, elastic, and supremacy clauses; popular sovereignty; and limited government.

U.S. GOV Standard 1.3: Students will explain the organization, functions, and processes of the United States government, such as the purpose of the President’s cabinet, the function of judicial review, and how a bill becomes a law, and apply that understanding to current issues.

U.S. GOV Standard 3.1: Students will explain the distribution of power among national, state, tribal, and local governments in order to identify how needs are met by governance systems.

U.S. GOV Standards 3.2: Students will explain the role that local elected officers fulfill, such as mayors, council members, auditors, treasurers, surveyors, assessors, recorders, clerks, sheriffs, county commissioners, and district or county attorneys and how local government roles differ from state and federal roles.

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