Are Utah social studies standards doing their job?

Teaching freedom of speech in grades 7-12

January 15, 2021

This is part 7 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.

The year 2021 has started fast and furious in the political space. Rioting at the U.S. Capitol and the banning of our president from certain big tech platforms like Facebook and Twitter have continued the national discussion about speech and ideas. Certainly, the choices of private entities create a culture that is upstream from politics.

What trajectory are we on for protecting freedom of speech? What are the limits on speech anyway? Can language ever be violence? These questions and more are becoming more relevant to every American. Our academic standards need to address them as well.

While 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), 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 first review, we are specifically looking at freedom of speech.

To help assess how well the current standards help students fulfill their duties in civil society and government with regard to freedom of speech, we have decided to look for two main factors: how well the standards (1) teach skills for civic discourse and (2) incorporate primary source founding documents.

United States Government and Citizenship course

Incorporate primary source documents

Several standards for this course directly mention, and in many cases require students to engage, with primary source documents, including the Articles of Confederation, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, the Federalist Papers, etc.

No standards directly mention freedom of speech. Instead, discussions of free speech may come up because a couple of 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, etc. 

Skills for civic discourse

As for developing skills for freedom of speech, the standards do not prompt much in this area. Many standards ask students to explain concepts, but mostly in a generic way. Only one standard asks students to examine various positions and then to defend a particular position. 

Conclusion

In general, Utah’s grade 7-12 United States Government and Citizenship standards do a fairly good job of incorporating primary source founding documents. However, the standards do not address relevant issues like the culture of free speech, speech of elected officials on private platforms, or, even directly, what the basic limits and privileges of free speech are. The standards also do not prompt much in the way of discussion and debate. The civics standards tend to be more content than application, but even the content could offer more robust knowledge.

(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.

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