Are Utah social studies standards doing their job?

Teaching equality before the law in grades 7-12

February 4, 2021

This is part 10 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.

America’s Declaration of Independence set out what has been called “a promissory note,” a set of ideals for what the nation could stand for and become.

One of those ideals was the concept of equality – that “all men are created equal,” in the words of the Declaration of Independence. From there, the nation started to move toward making good on those promises. For example, Amendment 13 outlawed slavery; Amendment 14 required states to offer “equal protection of the laws” to all U.S. citizens; Amendment 15 secured voting rights regardless of race; and Amendment 19 established a woman’s right to vote.

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 equality before the law.

To help assess how well the current standards help students fulfill their duties in civil society and government with regard to equality before the law, we have decided to look for two main factors: (1) mentions of the Declaration of Independence or of the amendments to the Constitution by name (13-15 and 19) and (2) discussion of the substance in the Declaration of Independence or these amendments (i.e., the end of slavery, equal protection before the law, right to vote regardless of race or gender).

United States Government and Citizenship course

Mentions of the Declaration of Independence or amendments to the Constitution by name (13-15 and 19)

The standards do directly reference the Declaration of Independence, which sets the stage for the concept of equality, but the standards for this course do not directly mention any of the amendments listed above (13th, 14th, 15th, or 19th).

Discussion of the substance in the Declaration of Independence or these amendments (i.e., the end of slavery, equal protection before the law, right to vote regardless of race or gender)

While these standards don’t directly reference the amendments discussed above, some of the standards may indirectly lead educators to teach the substance or ideas found in them. For example, a few standards prompt students to look at “ideas” that may have influenced the Constitution, or trace how the application of case law spells out the rights in the Bill of Rights or current rights-related issues. In fact, one of those explicitly prompts discussion about civil rights, which is the struggle to secure those rights for black Americans during the civil rights movement. This may help to cover the themes in these amendments.

Conclusion

In short, Utah’s grade 7-12 United States Government and Citizenship standards do not give a very thorough treatment of the concept of “equality before the law,” which is certainly a background they will need to understand the issues and controversies of today.  These standards could be improved by providing direct references to amendments that implemented the Declaration’s vision of all people being created equal, or a discussion of their purposes which helped secure equality before the law.

(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 influences the United States Constitution.

U.S. GOV Standard 2.1: Students will use historic and modern case studies, including Supreme Court cases, amendment initiatives, and legislation to trace the application of civil liberties, civil rights, and responsibilities spelled out in the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and other amendments.

U.S. GOV Standard 2.2: Students will examine various perspectives on a current rights-related issue; take a position; defend that position using the Constitution and Bill of Rights, historical precedents, Supreme Court decisions, and other relevant resources; and share that position, when possible, with relevant stakeholders.

This is part 10 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.

America’s Declaration of Independence set out what has been called “a promissory note,” a set of ideals for what the nation could stand for and become.

One of those ideals was the concept of equality – that “all men are created equal,” in the words of the Declaration of Independence. From there, the nation started to move toward making good on those promises. For example, Amendment 13 outlawed slavery; Amendment 14 required states to offer “equal protection of the laws” to all U.S. citizens; Amendment 15 secured voting rights regardless of race; and Amendment 19 established a woman’s right to vote.

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 equality before the law.

To help assess how well the current standards help students fulfill their duties in civil society and government with regard to equality before the law, we have decided to look for two main factors: (1) mentions of the Declaration of Independence or of the amendments to the Constitution by name (13-15 and 19) and (2) discussion of the substance in the Declaration of Independence or these amendments (i.e., the end of slavery, equal protection before the law, right to vote regardless of race or gender).

United States Government and Citizenship course

Mentions of the Declaration of Independence or amendments to the Constitution by name (13-15 and 19)

The standards do directly reference the Declaration of Independence, which sets the stage for the concept of equality, but the standards for this course do not directly mention any of the amendments listed above (13th, 14th, 15th, or 19th).

Discussion of the substance in the Declaration of Independence or these amendments (i.e., the end of slavery, equal protection before the law, right to vote regardless of race or gender)

While these standards don’t directly reference the amendments discussed above, some of the standards may indirectly lead educators to teach the substance or ideas found in them. For example, a few standards prompt students to look at “ideas” that may have influenced the Constitution, or trace how the application of case law spells out the rights in the Bill of Rights or current rights-related issues. In fact, one of those explicitly prompts discussion about civil rights, which is the struggle to secure those rights for black Americans during the civil rights movement. This may help to cover the themes in these amendments.

Conclusion

In short, Utah’s grade 7-12 United States Government and Citizenship standards do not give a very thorough treatment of the concept of “equality before the law,” which is certainly a background they will need to understand the issues and controversies of today.  These standards could be improved by providing direct references to amendments that implemented the Declaration’s vision of all people being created equal, or a discussion of their purposes which helped secure equality before the law.

(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.)

 

 

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