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The most recent standards for Alabama’s social studies course of study are from 2010 and include civics and government, economics, history, and geography strands united under the theme of Responsible Citizenship. The civics and government strand expresses the goal to enable students to function as “competent citizens committed to the fundamental values and principles of the constitutional democracy that established the republic of the United States of America.” The goal to educate students to become committed to the values that established the U.S. is contrary to the perspective that a quality civics education should encourage students to critically assess the roots of society and its values in order to know and improve them. Alabama’s approach to civics education erases the potential for critical thought about the foundation of this nation and denies students the opportunity to learn to come to their own conclusions. Alabama demonstrates a commitment to this denial of critical thought through the State Board of Education’s decision to ban critical race theory in public schools.
In elementary school, the curricular focus is on a character-based approach to civics education whereby students learn the basics of what it means to be a “good” citizen. This topic is approached through learning objectives related to rights, responsibilities, and rules. At the earliest elementary level, Kindergarten, students consider the three levels of life as family, school, and community. In first grade, the focus broadens to the local community and the state, which seems like an unnatural progression as first graders, like kindergarteners, would likely relate better to smaller-scale ideas of citizenship. This broad focus continues throughout elementary school, revealing the course standards to be lacking in culturally responsive curricular elements that would engage elementary students in an interactive and age-appropriate way. Service learning is encouraged without explicit instructions for implementation but with an expectation that students will learn about civic responsibility through unspecified hands-on activities. The standards note that learning should represent a variety of approaches that include role playing, debate, and use of scaffolding tools in addition to hands-on activities. Responsible citizenship is promoted in the curriculum with the teaching of current events, which is expected to be included in social studies courses at each grade level but left unclarified as to how to find age-appropriate material that is presented by educators with an unbiased manner.
Half of the 7th grade year is dedicated to the civics strand At the seventh grade level, Alabama expects their students to “assume” responsibilities in their family, school, and “community roles” through “opportunities to apply civic knowledge to problem-based learning situations in the community.” However, within the actual course of study, these opportunities are not clearly identified and seem to be dependent on the local school district. Without specificity regarding the ways in which these learning outcomes will be achieved, it is left to the individual educator’s discretion to choose contexts appropriate for middle-school students to act responsibly within their community roles. Though the approach at the middle school level seems at first to be oriented around participatory goals, the diction of the learning outcomes does not reflect any highest-order thinking imperatives to create or produce original work.
At the middle school level, students also seem to have no influence on the context or content of the participatory elements of learning, which disconnects civic learning from students’ actual lives and positions them in passive civic roles, rather than equipping them with the skills and agency to lead initiatives and make decisions. The 7th grade course standards also demonstrate a character-orientation with a focus on celebrating traits that are “beneficial to individuals and society” such as honesty, courage, compassion, civility, and loyalty. This course of study describes civic responsibilities as: “respect for rights of others, self-discipline, negotiation, compromise, fiscal responsibility, respect for law, patriotism, participation in political process.” Within this middle-school standard, there is an inherent assumption of patriotism and a potentially nationalist positioning of students as loyal citizens of the nation. There does not appear to be room for student input or dissent of any form.
In 12th grade, the government strand is required as a one-semester United States Government course. The clarity of the standards for the high school government course contrast with the vagueness of the earlier grade-cluster standards, though they are still lacking in direct mandates for participation. The majority of the learning outcomes for this course require students to explain, describe, and evaluate, functioning only at the second-highest level of Bloom’s taxonomy. Not one imperative requires students to activate their highest-order of thinking through creation or production of original work. The standards mention the requirement of culminating projects and imply that each student is required to participate in learning with an application of civic knowledge to relevant issues. However, guidelines for introducing or assessing these culminating projects are inaccessible for educators as they are not included in the course of study. The guidelines for the high school level government course emphasize the role of twelfth grade students as citizens of democracy and recommends that students engage in “debate, creative problem solving, collaborative group work, and evaluation of electronic and print media” without concretely building those practices into the curriculum and requiring creative productions as learning outcomes. The imperative for students to “understand the value of their roles as citizens in a democracy” seems ironic when all learning imperatives position students in the roles of analyzers rather than actors.
The Alabama standards do address the importance of research-based learning methods and participatory approaches in the introduction to the Social Studies curriculum and in the introductions to the civics courses. The main introductory section, titled Position Statements, describes the relevance of using instructional strategies, primary sources, literature and the arts, global connections, service learning, current events, and technology together as integrative pedagogy for best teaching practices. This position is reflected in the introduction to the 12th grade course, which describes an effective learning environment as a space that “promotes critical thinking and research and provides opportunities for civic participation.” Alabama’s Position Statements do represent a progressive understanding of effective pedagogy for civics education. The attempted focus on participatory pedagogy during the final year of high school also signals to a consciousness of how important participatory civics education is for older students learning to harness their own agency as full citizens. However, these participatory ideals are not effectively required as learning outcomes, and even a participatory approach to civics education can serve to reinforce the social status quo if the content of civic learning is delivered through a biased or uncritical perspective. Overall, Alabama demonstrates a commitment to high-quality pedagogy for civics education without integrating sufficient attention to diverse perspectives and embodiments of citizenship.