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The Kansas History, Government, and Social Studies Standards were adopted in 2020 and revised in 2021. The History Government Social Studies (HGSS) standards anchor on five principles that relate to important concepts of civics, such as the shaping of societies by individuals and groups, the rights, responsibilities, and choices of individuals, and the dynamic evolving nature of society and relationships. These five pillar standards of Kansas’ HGSS standards are presented alongside a mission statement dedicated to preparing students as “informed, thoughtful, engaged citizens.” Kansas identifies the goal of the academic standards for History, Government, and Social Studies as the development of active citizenship and the enrichment of societies and selves. However, the HGSS document is not a “state-mandated curriculum for how and when content is taught,” as “those decisions are left to local districts,” which indicates that the decision of whether to implement civics education through utilization of best practices and a participatory orientation is also left to local districts. The Kansas Department of Education website does provide rubrics and resources regarding classroom based assessment as part of the larger framework for inquiry based learning, but these pedagogical approaches are presented as recommendations. The elementary, middle, and high school levels have HGSS rubrics meant as resources for both students and educators. The standards regarding the overarching goals for the HGSS program of study are described in these rubric documents with comprehensive explanations and examples of how to approach each criteria and benchmark. The rubrics are accessible and useful for students looking to understand what is expected of them and for educators seeking to guide students towards the HGSS learning objectives in effective ways. Kansas also provides parent guides that are in alignment with the learning expectations for each grade level and grade band. These accessible guides present core learning objectives for each realm of social studies, which include active participatory-oriented mandates such as “create, “participate,” and “engage.” In every parent guide the mission to create informed, engaged, and thoughtful citizens is centered.
The Kansas civics standards are oriented around a useful framework for developing informed, thoughtful, engaged citizens that practice higher order thinking skills informed by credible information in order to engage as active members of communities. The five pillar standards approach important ideas of civic education such as the connection between the individual and society and the dynamic nature of communities. The fifth standard resembles a participatory orientation to civics with content that affirms the potential impact of a single interaction within the reality of constant change and also acknowledges the “tension and adjustments toward progress” that dynamic evolution entails.The complexity of these ideas can be approached in systemic ways that position students as sense-makers and emergent citizens with agency. In the Kansas HGSS document, each pillar standard is associated with multiple benchmark standards that increase in complexity. For each of these five standards, the final highest order thinking benchmark expects students to “use” their understanding of the relevant standard to “make a claim or advance a thesis using evidence and argument.” The second to last benchmark requires students to investigate and connect the theme of each pillar standard with a contemporary issue. These benchmarks do position students as active learners, but seem redundant as there are other civic skills students would benefit from practicing that could have been identified in these benchmarks. There isn’t a following step that requires students to share their claims with the public through any means, nor are there suggestions for different mediums through which students could advance their ideas and opinions.
The elementary HGSS standards are distinct to each grade level and include specific standards regarding civics and government competencies. Each grade level from K-5 has a document that suggests thematic topics described with “ideas” and “sample compelling questions,” and presents best practices for high-level learning and for developing tasks with benchmarks. Each grade level appendix also presents specific competencies for each realm of social studies. There is some effort to incorporate participatory elements into the curriculum but the learning objectives themselves often do not directly require active participation. For example, the students are expected to “identify” ways that citizens can participate in their government and why this participation is important, but they are never given concrete mandates to put their ideas into action or to practice participation in real contexts. The standards indicate a combination of bureaucratic and character orientations. A bureaucratic focus is evident in the content regarding the political and governmental institutions of United States society. There is a focus on key attributes of both good citizens and good societal leaders, which resemble a character oriented approach to civics. These qualities of civic goodness are defined as “showing respect, being responsible, having a positive attitude, exercising self-discipline, and engaging in conflict resolution.” These qualities are over-simplified to a certain degree and imply the potential of a harmful character orientation. The mention of a “positive attitude” may feel insurmountable to some who suffer from historical or modern injustices and feel powerless in effecting change within society. Furthermore, the mention of “conflict resolution” doesn’t approach the complexity of conflict nor the cultural shift towards conflict “transformation” that recognizes the impossibility of “resolving” conflicts that may be centuries old or nuanced to the point that there is no obvious resolution.
The standards for 6-8th grade are structured around four middle-level courses: Ancient World History, Geography, Kansas History, and US History. The middle-level course on US History covers the “constitution through international expansion.” Civics concepts are woven into the US History course as the founding documents of the nation are investigated with sample compelling questions such as “why is freedom of speech so important,” “have Constitutional values changed over time,” and “what is the role of a citizen.” This course also approaches the impact of the founding of the United States on other nations and cultures through the exploration of different eras in U.S. history. The description of the theme “Establishing America” includes the statement that “Americans began moving west during this period affecting the relationship between the United States and other nations, and Native Americans” followed by the suggestion that “students should investigate and analyze the impact of these changes on American society.” However, the only compelling question for that theme related to the impact of “these changes” on Native Americans is the question “what is the relationship between money and power,” which can be loosely applied to the impacts of settler colonization but likely wouldn’t move towards a full inquiry of those impacts without an explicit connection drawn by an educator. The most participatory oriented civics/government competency at the middle-level is that which requires the original creation of a position on an issue, followed by the articulate communication of that position to policy makers. If this was a state-mandated standard, students in Kansas would be ensured practice with civic participation in middle school, but the HGSS standards are only a guide for educators at the local level.
Kansas high schools offer an upper-level course on the topic of the United States Government, described by various themes and topics relevant to civics education. The HGSS standards provide a guiding curriculum for the U.S. Government upper-level course that is meant only to give educators examples of possible ways the course may be organized, leaving details of lesson and unit content to the discretion of teachers. The U.S. Government course appendix consists of a reiteration of best practices for learning paired with suggested content themes described by “ideas” and “sample compelling questions.” The suggested content approaches topics of civics education such as local, state, and national government structure and function, politics, interest groups, and media, human and civil rights, domestic and foreign policy, and the role of the citizen. The resources for these topics include many keywords under the heading of “ideas” and many questions in the category of “sample compelling questions.” It is unclear what the definition of the terms are, some of which are contested or complex ideas such as civic values or freedom. Furthermore, the questions are presented without guiding lines of inquiry for each compelling question or various sample conclusions to present to students. For example, the sample compelling question for the role of the citizen topic “who has the power” could be interpreted as a leading question followed by the question “who are ‘we the people’,” meant to lead students to answer that the people have the power, when that is a contestable reality. Without sample content that addresses the compelling questions, local educators may skew their presentation of this kind of civics content. Some of the upper-level competencies of the United States Government course demonstrate participatory elements in the realm of Civics and Government. One expectation is that students register to vote, if applicable, and that they will also apply civic virtues and democratic principles when working with others. The upper-level civic competency that most embodies a participatory orientation is the expectation that students will “work collaboratively and cooperatively to negotiate, compromise, build coalitions, and create consensus in the school and/or community.” If that standard were approached comprehensively, giving students the opportunity to practice each of those active learning mandates, including “build” and “create,” this competency would perfectly embody an effective form of participatory civics education that teaches students how to advocate for social change in sustainable ways using their own civic agency.
In the HGSS document, anchor standards and benchmarks are highlighted alongside recommendations for effective HGSS classroom practices. Those best practices include “civic engagement” and “culturally relevant instruction.” These two categories resonate with a participatory approach and demonstrate action-oriented ideals for student learning. The goal of civic engagement encourages classroom practices that promote students sharing their civic skills through actions intended to improve their communities, societies and selves The application of culturally relevant instruction is linked to the hope that students will use experiences of recognition and respect as resources for education, which implies an active orientation towards the skills and knowledge that will be developed in the classroom. The concept is revisited within the grade level standards document and educators are issued the reminder to make learning engaging to students by locating it within relevant cultural contexts that students find meaningful. These best practices also include higher order thinking, where students must go “beyond remembering and understanding, to applying, analyzing, evaluating, and creating.” The learning objectives to “apply” and “create” especially align with the participatory orientation, and the inclusion of this category as best practice sets the expectation that students in Kansas will be expected to perform higher order thinking within the realm of civics education. Overall, the Kansas HGSS document sets forth valid notions of best practices for civics education, but essentially civics is not mandated by the state to be taught in accordance with those expressed best practices nor implemented in orientation towards the desired competencies regarding civic participation.