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The K-12 Iowa Core in Social Studies set of standards was created and adopted in 2017. The Iowa Department of Education utilizes the National Council for the Social Studies’ definition of social studies, explicitly linking the goal of social studies with civic education with the affirmation that “the primary purpose of social studies is to help young people develop the ability to make informed and reasoned decisions for the public good as citizens of a culturally diverse, democratic society in an interdependent world.” Iowa appears to agree with the importance of civics education and its foundational role in social studies, and includes a Civics/Government strand of standards in its social studies framework. Iowa also maintains a webpage with links to various external civics and government educational resources that educators can access and peruse. Iowa presents its standards alongside an inquiry pedagogy by providing inquiry standards for each grade level from K-8 and for the 9-12 grade band topics. 

Within the civics strand of standards, three anchor standards are presented. The civics anchor standard that would most lend itself to a participatory orientation is that which asks students to Apply Civic Virtues and Democratic Principles. The mandate to “apply” civic virtues and democratic principles implies a degree of understanding of those virtues and principles, and building that understanding seems to be what that anchor standard is most dedicated to teaching students. Only one learning objective in that category asks students to practice active participation through a mandate to “develop an opinion on a decision about a local issue.” All other educational outcomes in that category only expect students to “describe,” “evaluate,” or  “assess,” which would not develop the abilities referenced as necessary for emergent citizens of a diverse democratic society as effectively as scaffolded practice in deliberation and participation that positions students as active young citizens.

Elementary School

Iowa does approach the idea of connecting the past to the present with an emphasis on elementary school students understanding how our society has changed over time as a result of changing laws and democratic principles. The most active mandate for civic participation is found in 2nd grade when students are asked to develop opinions about local issues, positioning them as active citizens who have agency in the solving of social issues. Aside from the inquiry standards, the participatory-oriented standards are exclusive to the 2nd grade. In the 5th grade, the thematic focus of the year is on Rights and Responsibilities. According to the Iowa Core document, this year includes learning about the founding documents of the United States as well as exploring the various perspectives that exist regarding the concept of rights and responsibilities. One of the inquiry standards at this level seems to represent a participatory approach to civics with a Taking Informed Action learning objective expecting students to “use a range of consensus-building and democratic procedures to make decisions about and act on civic problems in the classroom.” The active mandates to “use,” “make,” and “act” all embody a participatory approach to civics that positions students as active practitioners of civic engagement at various levels of community and society. However, the civics standards at the 5th grade level only ask students to “describe” and “explain” without creating or sharing their own opinions or original work. There appears to be a disconnect between the inquiry standards and the civic standards, which don’t reflect the same active mandates for participatory learning objectives.

Middle School

The civics anchor standard requiring the analysis of civic and political institutions is the only civics category present at the middle school level. At the 6th grade level, no content standards for civics are included, though one of the inquiry standards for Taking Informed Action in 6th grade expects students to “apply a range of deliberative and democratic procedures to make decisions and take action in classrooms, schools, and communities.” It is unclear how this inquiry standard is meant to be approached or met when civics standards regarding taking action at various levels of society are not integrated into that year’s focus on World Regions and Cultures. The application of democratic procedures is relevant to global citizenship, but that connection is not made clear at the 6th grade level. At the 7th and 8th grade levels, the only civics standards are in the Analyze Civic and Political Institutions category. In 7th grade, one of the civics standards in that category approaches the concept of global citizenship in a vaguely participatory way. The learning objective asks students to “distinguish and apply the powers and responsibilities of global citizens, interest groups and the media in a variety of governmental and nongovernmental contexts,” outlining many important topics of inquiry in one broad learning mandate and containing the single learning mandate relevant to global citizenship. Though it is unclear how students will be supported in applying those powers and responsibilities of global citizens, this standard embodies the most participatory objective at the middle school level. 

Despite the fact that the topic of the 8th grade year is U.S. History and Civic Ideals, there are only two learning objectives for civic education presented. Both civic objectives require students to “explain” either the power and responsibilities of citizens or the origins, functions, and structure of government without positioning them in any sort of active role relevant to these complex questions of citizenship and democracy. One history standard at the 8th grade level does challenge students to “critique primary and secondary sources” relevant to formative national documents, which puts them in a slightly more active and critical role than mandates to “explain” do. The expectation that they will come to their own critical conclusions regarding the studied sources could guide students towards practicing with deliberation and developing their own civic agency. Overall, however, the 8th grade year does not approach the concept of civic ideals in a complex or comprehensive way, and hardly positions students as active citizens practicing with their own senses of civic responsibility and engagement.

High School

The only high school standards regarding the civics anchor standard to Apply Civic Virtues and Democratic Principles exist in the 9-12 grade band standards for both the Civics and Government and the United States History high school set of standards. One objective from this category expects students to “assess the impact of individuals and reform movements on changes to civil rights and liberties.” This is an important topic for comprehensive civics education as it could be taught in ways that reveal the various forms of civic engagement that lead to social change, including protesting and boycotting. Another objective similarly expects students to “evaluate the effectiveness of political action in changing government and policy, such as voting, debate, contacting officials, campaign contributions, protest, civil disobedience, and any alternative methods to participation,” which alludes to an exploration of participation through alternative means but does not actually position students as practitioners of political action, even as they approach full legal citizenship during high school. 

In high school, students are tasked with analyzing examples of political activism and the various avenues that citizens can take to challenge public policy, but there is no indication that this analysis should involve any action from students towards participating in these civic practices. Students are positioned to evaluate civic values and democratic principles without any expectation to practice using multiple forms of deliberation and engagement within meaningful practical contexts. Overall, the content of the Civics and Government standards is bureaucratic in nature and approached with passive learning mandates to “evaluate,” “analyze,” “explain” or occasionally “critique.” The objective to “critique” involves a focus on “the influence of intermediary institutions on government and policy,” which could be an important aspect of quality civics education that approaches the many ways society and government are influenced by power structures and social institutions. However, the only resource educators have for teaching these concepts is the standards themselves, which could lead to these important topics being approached in perfunctory, simplistic, or biased ways. Similarly, the concepts of civic virtues and democratic principles themselves are complex and should warrant nuanced exploration to avoid setting expectations for patriotism and civic disposition that may not resonate with individual students.


The realm of civics in Iowa that has the most potential to approach a participatory application of democratic principles is only present at certain grade levels and does not comprise a core component of the Iowa social studies standards. The anchor standard of the civics strand that should position students to Apply Civic Virtues and Democratic Principles is only highlighted at the 1st, 2nd, and 4th levels with a single learning objective at each of those grades. Furthermore, there are four learning objectives in this anchor standard category that are meant to suffice for the entirety of high school. The fact that not one of those four learning mandates asks students to create original work or practice the skills they are meant to be evaluating and explaining denies students multiple and varied opportunities to apply their civic skills as they near full legal citizenship. Overall, students are not positioned as young emergent citizens within the civics standards, though the inquiry standards that frame each grade level do contain important participatory mandates for active practice with civic deliberation and engagement. 

Iowa’s inquiry standards are of high quality and mirror the inquiry arc that is widely accepted as best pedagogical practice. However, it is unclear how the inquiry standards are meant to be applied to the content standards, which are targeted more towards processing information than practicing accessible forms of civic participation. Based on the 2017 K-12 Iowa Core in Social Studies, the standards consist of mainly passive learning objectives with minimal detail on how educators and students can move towards these educational goals in participatory, meaningful, and effective ways. Despite the expressed goal of social studies to develop civic agency in students, the only standards that would effectively position students as practicing citizens with developing agency are the inquiry standards, which are presented at each grade level without an indication for how educators can integrate them into the content standards.

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