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Kentucky’s most recent academic standards for social studies were adopted in 2019 and include a section describing the progression of civics standards from Kindergarten through high school. The Kentucky Academic Standards for Social Studies are explicitly linked to the overall theme of “educating for civic life in a democracy.” The Kentucky Board of Education sets forward a vision for students that consists of the concrete goal statements that define learning objectives and are meant to “frame the instructional programs in Kentucky schools.” These statements define the realms in which students should be provided with opportunities to acquire certain capacities and explain the expectations of how schools will support students in accessing those opportunities. These goals were established through legislation, and the legal requirements of social studies in Kentucky are connected to the encouraged use of the model curriculum framework at the local level. The Kentucky Academic Standards for Social Studies are meant to be paired with the Model Curriculum Framework to guide local educators in implementing civics learning in accordance with the state standards.
The Model Curriculum Framework provides best evidence-based instructional practices, justifies the need for professional learning communities, describes balanced assessment, and guides educators through creating a curriculum. According to the legislation, the state must provide local districts with a model curriculum framework that identifies, among other things, teaching strategies, ideas for community-based learning, and “strategies to incorporate character education throughout the curriculum.” Character education is thus an integral part of Kentucky’s vision for civics education and is defined in the standards around the qualities of “altruism, citizenship, courtesy, hard work, honesty, human worth, justice, knowledge, patriotism, respect, responsibility and self-discipline.” The legislation only requires local districts to meet the minimum required standards, not to use specific curriculum or teaching strategies to approach the social studies standards. There are signs of a participatory orientation to civics within Kentucky standards for social studies, found in the framework of the inquiry practice as pedagogy and the recommended student-centered approach to creating curriculum. Within the Kentucky standards, educators can also access “disciplinary clarifications and instructional support” for each grade level and content strand. The Civics Disciplinary Strand has clarifications for educators in regards to the grade level standards their students are expected to meet.
The Kentucky civics standards are categorized according to five main themes: Civic and Political Institutions, Roles and Responsibilities of a Citizen, Civic Virtues and Democratic Principles, Processes, Rules and Laws, and Kentucky Government. Kentucky’s elementary school civics standards demonstrate a largely bureaucratic orientation to civics education. The majority of standards for Kindergarten through 5th grade fall within the category of Civic and Political Institutions, mainly approaching understandings of different governmental structures, functions, and origins. The category that has the most standards after Civic and Political Institutions is the Roles and Responsibilities of a Citizen category. These standards approach ideas of responsible citizenship and civic participation with mainly passive learning objectives. In both second and fourth grade, a Roles and Responsibilities of a Citizen standard alludes to a participatory orientation without concretely expecting participation from students. The standard asks second graders to “describe the importance of civic participation” and fourth graders to do the same with the added mandate to “locate examples in past and current events.” These are incremental steps that should then lead students to practice actual civic participation, even as young citizens.
The fifth grade standards for Roles and Responsibilities of a Citizen both ask students to “analyze” the rights and responsibilities of citizenship. A participatory learning mandate is embedded within one of those standards in the clarification that the analysis of the “responsibilities of U.S. citizens” should include “explaining and demonstrating ways to show good citizenship.” A character-oriented approach is evident in the idea of good citizenship along with the standards that fall under the Civic Virtues and Democratic Principles category. Those virtues and principles are defined for educators in the disciplinary clarifications for civics, and the concept and qualities of good citizenship are identified within the fifth grade civics disciplinary clarifications. Accompanying the Roles and Responsibilities of a Citizen standards is the clarification for educators that “Americans can demonstrate good citizenship by participating in the election process, contributing to their community through public service, helping others in their school and community and understanding current events.” Though this instructional support is only meant as a suggestion, it presents a narrow view of good citizenship and the ways in which students could effectively demonstrate those qualities of goodness.
Kentucky sets forth civics standards for each grade level from 6-8 rather than presenting grade-band standards for middle school. The standards in sixth and seventh grade exclusively correspond to the thematic historical periods investigated during each of the middle school years without learning objectives that involve active participation or the creation of original work. Eighth grade standards approach ideas of U.S. society through a bureaucratic orientation that focuses on content regarding the founding documents, origins and purposes of societal features, and the relationships between different levels of government. There are standards in eighth grade regarding the Roles and Responsibilities of a Citizen that approach the idea of a participatory orientation with mandates such as “analyze the role of citizens in the U.S. political system.” The standard that asks students to “analyze expansion of and restriction on citizenship and voting rights on diverse groups” is presented through a historical lens that could also be linked to ongoing modern restrictions on citizenship and voting for diverse groups. Overall, middle school students are expected to perform learning objectives such as “analyze, “explain,” “examine,” assess,” and “describe.” These objectives don’t effectively approach a participatory orientation to learning, as they are mandates for processing information without linking it to higher order thinking functions that students can practice with scaffolding from educators.
High schools in Kentucky require students to pass a civics exam in order to graduate. However, this exam is based off of the United States citizenship test put forth by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). The efficacy of this sort of assessment is assumed to be sufficient for evaluating students’ readiness for civic life in a democracy, which is the expressed goal for social studies education in Kentucky. The truth of this assumption is contestable as questions on the USCIS test generally require rote demonstrations of learning, which typically don’t effectively assess students’ civic agency or potential for engagement in democratic society. High schools are also required to provide twelfth graders with instruction on voter registration and participation. Those minimum graduation requirements for students to pass the civics exam and receive direction regarding voting most resemble a bureaucratic orientation through the focus on knowledge about the U.S. government and its history and participation in the traditionally established avenues of civic engagement.
Kentucky’s high school standards demonstrate a bureaucratic orientation through a focus on the structure, function, and interactions of the various branches of United States government. Though there are some traces of a participatory orientation to civics, the high school civic standards related to civics content themes lack student-centered elements and don’t prioritize higher-order thinking. For example, one high school civics standard expects students to “describe how active citizens can affect change in their communities and Kentucky.” The mandate to explain how citizens can effect change in their communities is not the same as a learning objective that expects students to demonstrate any personal participation in methods of social change. The most participatory elements of civics education can be found in the inquiry standards for communicating conclusions. These three civics standards at the high school level position students as communicators of informed knowledge and opinions, involving practice in “civil discussion,” presenting public communications, and proposing solutions and action plans. If these three inquiry standards were implemented at every grade level from 9-12, Kentucky would demonstrate some elements of a participatory orientation towards civics education. However, it is unclear how those standards are meant to be approached by educators, as there is a lack of guidance for teachers in how to support students through the process of public communication on different levels of society or lead students through the steps necessary to implement an action plan.
Kentucky aspires to produce civically engaged, culturally aware, and socially responsible citizens. However, the legally required standards lack mandates for active civic engagement or student-centered forms of pragmatic participation on various levels of society. The inquiry cycle standards best embody these approaches, but it is unclear as to how they are meant to be interwoven with each grade level. Local educators are not required to adhere to the inquiry pedagogy, as the legislation only ensures that local districts must meet minimum required standards such that the pedagogy and implementation of those standards are left to local discretion. Overall, if civics education in Kentucky was effectively approached through the inquiry pedagogy, students might have the opportunity to make their own meaning out of the bureaucratic-oriented content and to draw their own conclusions from the character-oriented content. A participatory and student-centered framework for learning is outlined within the inquiry practice and accompanying inquiry standards. This participatory orientation to learning is alluded to in the state-mandated set of academic standards for social studies, but is not required by the state to be the official pedagogical approach to social studies or civics.