Are Utah social studies standards doing their job?

Teaching checks and balances in grades K-6

Written by Christine Cooke

November 19, 2020

This is part 5 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 K-6. While there are United States Government and Citizenship standards in grades 7-12, there are no separate civics education standards in grades K-6.

James Madison is credited with saying, “In framing a government, which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty is this: You must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place, oblige it to control itself.” To accomplish this balancing act, the Founders drafted a constitution that empowered and restrained government to ensure no part of it wielded too much power. In civics today, the system of mechanisms in the Constitution aimed at this objective is described by the term “checks and balances.”

Early on, our education system was envisioned as a vehicle to ensure the new republic continued.  Certainly, education – especially public education – ought to teach the principles that relate to an individual’s public life, including the checks and balances that help secure their liberty.

Because the Utah State Board of Education is currently reviewing the Utah state social studies standards for elementary school grades (kindergarten through sixth grade), Sutherland Institute is seeking to understand how well Utah’s current social studies standards currently help students fulfill their duties in civil society and government.

For this fifth review, we are looking at how well standards teach the concept of checks and balances among the branches of federal government, and between state/local and federal governments (federalism).

Thus, 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.

Grades K-2

In grades K-2, standards, objectives and indicators do not directly reference checks and balances or the three branches of federal government. However, one indirect reference may lead teachers and students to these discussions.

Checks and balances in federal government

One standard asks students to identify and explain the significance of various national symbols, documents, and landmarks and lists as an example the Constitution. Understanding the significance of the Constitution should in most cases cover the unique mechanisms to ensure that checks and balances exist between the three federal branches of government.

Federalism

That standard would apply in a similar way to the concepts of federalism. A deeper dive into the significance of the Constitution might warrant a discussion about the proper roles of the federal government versus the state government (like enumerated powers or the 10th Amendment). 

Grades 3-6

As with many of these standards reviews, we see that in grades 3-6, standards, objectives and indicators do significantly more than grades K-2 to prompt learning about certain basic principles of government. That is also the case with the concepts of checks and balances and federalism.

Checks and balances in federal government

One standard in the fifth grade, through its indicators, deals specifically with the topic of checks and balances in federal government. The indicators ask students to “describe the concept of checks and balances,” “distinguish between the role of the Legislative, Executive and Judicial branches of the government,” and “recognize ideas from documents used to develop the Constitution.” Obviously, the first two indicators deal with federal checks and balances directly. The final indicator may further flesh out the philosophy behind these mechanisms.

Federalism

No standards directly mention federalism in grades 3-6. However, one standard in fifth grade discusses the Revolutionary War’s impact on self-rule, specifically how “the winning of the war set in motion a need for a new government that would serve the needs of the new states.” This might prompt a discussion about the debate over the powers given to the federal government versus state governments.

Conclusion

Utah’s K-6 social studies standards do not discuss checks and balances and federalism in great detail other than in fifth grade. By fifth grade, checks and balances is discussed directly, but the concepts of federalism are not. These standards might be improved by including those concepts in earlier grades.

 

(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.)

Utah Core Standards, Objectives and Indicators referenced:

Source: Utah Core Standards, Utah State Board of Education

Second Grade:

Standard 2: Students will recognize and practice civic responsibility in the community, state and nation.

Objective 3: Investigate and show how communities, state, and nation are united by symbols that represent citizenship in our nation.

            Indicators:

(c): Identify and explain the significance of various national symbols, documents, and landmarks (e.g. Declaration of Independence, Constitution, flag, Pledge of Allegiance, national monuments, national capitol building.)

 

Fifth Grade:

Standard 2: Students will understand the chronology and significance of key events leading to self-government.

Objective 2: Evaluate the Revolutionary War’s impact on self-rule.

Indicators: 

(d): Explain how winning the war set in motion a need for a new government that would service the needs of the new states.

 

Fifth Grade:

Standard 3: Students will understand the rights and responsibilities guaranteed in the United States Constitution and Bill of Rights. 

Objective 1: Assess the underlying principles of the US Constitution as the framework for the United States’ form of government, a compound constitutional republic.

Indicators: 

(a): Recognize ideas from documents used to develop the Constitution (e.g. Magna Carta, Iroquois Confederacy, Articles of Confederation, and Virginia Plan).

(c) Distinguish between the role of the Legislative, Executive, and Judicial branches of the government.

(e) Describe the concept of checks and balances.

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