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Colorado’s most recent social studies content standards were developed in 2020 and encompass four subjects: history, geography, economics, and civics. These standards highlight the importance of quality social studies education within an evolving democracy by citing the position statement of the National Council for Social Studies, which clarifies the goal of public education as the development of an informed citizenry. The overarching definition of civics education used in the Colorado standards includes examples of bureaucratic, character-based, and participatory approaches. A bureaucratic approach is most heavily centered in the standards with foci in the Colorado standards defined as the “origins, structure, and functions of governments” and the “importance of law.” Character education is the most prevalent orientation of the goal to teach students the “rights, roles, and responsibilities of citizenship,” though there are suggestions for implementing this standard objective through a participatory approach. The essential skills communicated as necessary for responsible citizenry consist of “critical thinking, self-assessment, reasoning, problem-solving, collaboration, research, and investigation” and represent a participatory disposition without naming any specific character traits. However, character education is present throughout the civic standards that are structured around specific conceptions of “civic-minded individuals” that include mention of “civic virtues such as civility, cooperation, respect, and responsible participation.” The Colorado standards express the final goal of civics as equipping students with “the skills necessary to participate in all levels of government.” This goal represents a participatory orientation to civics that nonetheless remains centered on government.
There are two civics standards for each grade level from K-8 within this social studies curriculum. Civic education is first approached in preschool with a recognition of membership to groups and an understanding of rules in a community. In preschool, numerous suggestions are made for implementing the material in a relatable and developmentally-appropriate manner. These “high-quality teaching and learning” activities provide clear examples for how educators can best support children’s learning, including recommendations to give students responsibilities within the classroom, provide opportunities for cooperation, and engage children in group decision-making. Past preschool, however, the section on “examples of high-quality teaching and learning experiences” is absent. For the rest of the elementary school level standards, the bulk of each grade level civic standard is described by a section titled “academic context and connections.” Within this section exist four subsections titled “Colorado essential skills,” “inquiry questions,” “nature and skills of civics,” and “disciplinary, information, and media literacy.” These subsections contain useful information on the specific learning objectives for each standard at each grade level. The section regarding the nature and skills of civics clarifies the ideological approach to civics education through descriptions of ideal “civic-minded individuals” that mention the evolving nature of the Constitution as well as the “concept of individual rights as a cornerstone to American democracy.” It appears that ideologically weighted statements such as the latter are presented as fact, excluding students from discussions of how the interpretation of “individual rights” may be a contentious issue. However, the practice of inquiry is intentionally highlighted within Colorado’s standards as a requisite subsection for each grade level standard with relevant questions for learners to consider.
At the middle school level, all of the learning outcomes for civic standards require students to engage with material in various ways without any requisites to produce original work of their own. The learning objectives, titled “evidence outcomes,” consist mainly of imperatives to describe, evaluate, or analyze the content. There are suggestions for these kinds of higher order thinking practices in the other subsections, such as the ideas that students might apply civics content and skills to real life situations or conduct original research. These participatory practices would be most useful if project-based learning was a requisite part of the standards. A student-centered approach is lacking in the middle school evidence outcomes even while student-centered practices are recommended in the other subsections of the middle school civics standards. The inquiry questions for each grade-level standard provide introductory questions for many topics that are important features of civic education but could be complex to discuss without further guidance for the educator. The evidence outcomes could be similarly complex to approach when left to the educator’s discretion, though there is evidence of requisite assessment of diverse individuals’ and nation’s experiences, as opposed to a singularly United-States-centric approach. For example, a learning outcome for the seventh grade asks students to illustrate the “interactions between nations and their citizens,” citing “Apartheid, human rights violations, and one-child policy of China” as potential examples. What is encouraging about this kind of learning outcome is that it has the potential to confront situations in which the government’s policies were harmful to individuals, and to convey information about how the citizens of that country then went about trying to change such circumstances.
The civics standards at the high school level are clustered without differentiation between the high school grade levels. The civics content standards for high school are accompanied by a sample curriculum for the requisite civics course covering the origins and functions of the U.S. government. The curriculum includes planning tools for each unit of instruction in the high school course and covers a year’s worth of bureaucracy-oriented content. Each unit is described by learning standards and guiding questions that align with the core inquiry questions presented for each topic. Educators are also given standards for the critical content and key skills that study of each unit should impart on students. The key skills section embodies the learning objectives for each unit, which require high school students to engage with existing information exclusively through evaluative and analytical thinking functions. Students at the high school level are not required to produce original work nor to participate in civic practices or projects at a personally relevant level. Requisites for participatory civic education as students are preparing to graduate and enter civil society as adults are necessary to guide young citizens towards full civic engagement.
The Colorado social studies standards demonstrate a participatory orientation to civics in early grade levels through concrete suggestions for how students can actively practice civic participation in the immediate learning environment through creative production of original work. However, these participatory activities and creative practices are not required of students nor are they provided consistently through the grade levels. The state of Colorado legally requires high school graduates to complete a civics course through Title 22, a statute that ensures students of the state the right to an education regarding the history, culture, and civil government of Colorado and the United States. This would be more meaningful if the high school civics curriculum was more oriented towards requisite participation in civic practices and less centered on understandings of institutionalized bureaucratic structures and functions. A better balance could be found in these standards by approaching bureaucracy-oriented civics education through a participatory lens that enables students to practice civic engagement within existing social structures.