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The most recent Civics standards from Georgia are embedded within the Social Studies Standards of Excellence, which were adopted in 2016. In Georgia, civics education is integrated within the greater social studies curriculum up until high school, when a semester-long civics class is offered with no other evident focus on civics. As a high school graduation requisite, students must pass a cumulative social studies test, 20% of which is regarding topics of U.S. government and civics. Throughout the K-5 elementary level social studies standards, there are at least two content standards for civics education at each grade level. The civics standards are named under the heading of “Government/Civic Understandings” and describe standards that approach civic understandings mainly through character- and bureaucracy- oriented lenses. Georgia does include supplemental materials for educators regarding implementing the standards in the classroom, as a series of “Teacher Content Videos” regarding various grade level standards can be accessed on the Georgia standards website. Each grade level from K-5 has a social studies content theme under which standards for historical, geographic, and economic understandings are included alongside the government and civic understandings. These standards for understanding tend to overlap and connect under each grade level theme.
The K-5 social studies curriculum outlines a sequential progression of themes that center entirely on “American” identity, the state of Georgia, and United States history. In kindergarten and first grade, social studies centers on explorations of the “foundations” and “heritage” of America, respectively. Early elementary civics education in Georgia indicates a character-oriented approach through the Kindergarten learning objective to “describe examples of positive character traits exhibited by good citizens,” defining these character traits of good citizens as “honesty, patriotism, courtesy, respect, pride, and self-control.” This is a limiting view of good citizenship that neglects to validate forms of civic action that might seem dissident to patriotism or national pride. Furthermore, according to the first grade standards under the theme of “Our American Heritage,” students must describe how historical figures displayed these character traits through the study of certain individuals and their “contributions” to society.
The only historical figures included who are not white men are Sacagawea, who is paired with Lewis and Clark under the contribution of “exploration,” and Ruby Bridges, whose contribution is identified as “civil rights.” The learning objective to describe the “positive character traits” that those specific historical figures display defines those traits as “fairness, respect for others, respect for the environment, courage, equality, tolerance, perseverance, and commitment.” In the case of Ruby Bridges, there is an irony in that her story rests on the historical oppression and exclusion of Black Americans from full access to social institutions and civil rights, which would indicate that much of society was not aligned with the positive character traits of fairness, respect for others, equality, or tolerance. An analysis of Ruby Bridges’ life should include a critical view on her positionality as a child braving entry into a society that exploited and oppressed her people in systemic and structural ways.
It is doubtful that these critical observations will be highlighted in practice when the focus of the early elementary standards seems to be on American identity and patriotism, aligning with the ideology of American exceptionalism. The second standard for first grade civic understandings is to simply “explore the concept of patriotism through the words in the songs America (My Country ‘Tis of Thee) and America the Beautiful (for example: brotherhood, liberty, freedom, pride, etc.).” This patriotism-oriented approach to civic understandings is concerning when the concepts of liberty and freedom are so widely contested and largely unfulfilled for marginalized communities of citizens. A bureaucratic-oriented approach is most evident in the fourth and fifth grades, during which the focus centers on the functions of the founding documents of the United States and the structures of the U.S. government. There is not a single learning objective in the elementary standards that requires students to create anything original, even an opinion. The closest thing to a participatory standard is the kindergarten requirement to “demonstrate an understanding of good citizenship” through the explanations of how and why rules are made and should be followed. Even this approximation to citizenship practice does not require students to participate in practicing civics, just to explain it.
In sixth and seventh grade, civics education is focused on global studies of various regions of the world. These grade level standards approach an understanding of international government structures through comparison and contrast with the United States. The students are expected to passively “explain” and “describe” forms of civic participation in government for various European, African, and Asian countries. However, within this standard, the students are only expected to understand “the role of the citizens in choosing the leaders” of the various countries’ identified electoral systems, which seems to imply the positioning of American democracy as the most just social system for electing leaders. This presentation also effectively limits the comparisons of civic responsibility and participation to the electoral process and neglects to discuss the other aspects of foreign societies that could be learned from. This approach to international comparison could be based more on curiosity about the lessons to be learned from other countries and thus the potential for social improvement. Civics education in eighth grade is concerned only with the government structures in Georgia, as students are taught about the branches of government in Georgia, the role of state leaders in Georgia, and about their local government. The learning objectives exclusively required students to analyze, explain, describe, list, or identify various features of state-level civic understanding without a hint of expectation towards critical thinking or active participation.
In high school, students take a government course entitled American Government/Civics that is described by 17 social studies standards. Each of the 17 standards is described by a number of clarifying standards, which address the specificity of the learning objectives for each thematic standard. Of all those standards, there is not a single mandate for active participation or practice in civic engagement. Overall, the focus is bureaucratic in orientation without opportunities for active practice as emergent citizens within governmental or societal structures. The course outline for American Government and Civics is accessible through the Georgia Standards website and is accompanied by various videos that delve into the almost entirely bureaucracy-oriented content of the 10-unit curriculum. Each unit is extremely accessible to educators through extensive sample unit documents that describe the content, suggested activities, and rubric for evaluation of every unit. The compilation of sample activities and assessments connects to the statewide social studies standards and provides ample opportunities for educators to develop a comprehensive understanding of what the Standards of Excellence expect to be communicated to students. However, the bureaucratic focus of the high school course without any participatory engagement aligns with a status quo of civic education that neglects to actually allow students to practice relevant civic learning and develop a deeper and more personal understanding of civic agency.
Georgia overall demonstrates a bureaucracy- and character-oriented curriculum that is accessible to educators but does not engage students in any forms of participatory civics education. There is a heavy focus on the mechanisms and institutions of government along with a perfunctory exploration of international comparisons and relevant history. Georgia does not seem to prioritize engaging students with the course material in ways that enable a personal understanding of each’s own capacity to create change within their communities. Georgia also embodies a form of harmful character education that positions patriotism as a positive character trait, rather than an evolving relationship between a society and its people. An uncritical exploration of civics only serves to reinforce hierarchical social structures of domination and injustice, wherein many stories and perspectives are erased from the curriculum, excluding many students from full access to the provided civic education. Without culturally relevant civic education that includes diverse perspectives and validates all students in the classroom as emergent civic participants, an unjust status quo will prevail in classrooms and in society.