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Louisiana updated its academic standards for social studies in 2022. The Louisiana Student Standards for Social Studies evolved from the 2011 set of standards for social studies. In the letter addressing educators, the State Superintendent of Education expresses the goal of the social studies standards as providing students instruction in the four core areas: civics, economics, history, and geography. The Louisiana Superintendent of Education clarifies that the 2022 standards for social studies “accomplish that while highlighting Louisiana’s rich heritage and illuminating how the United States has become the greatest country in the history of the world.” The statement that the U.S. is the greatest country of all time is an example of the ideology of American exceptionalism, which is a harmful foundation from which to present civics education. The ideology of American exceptionalism is visible again in the published statement to Louisiana educators that “we must, and we shall, teach our students to appreciate the majesty of our country and their obligations as citizens to safeguard America’s founding principles.” The strand of civics standards in Louisiana must be considered in context of these intentions, which conclude with a quote from Ronald Reagan on freedom and the statement that the Louisiana Student Standards for Social Studies “create a Freedom Framework” through which Louisiana educators might nurture desires for freedom in their students. The ideological bias of American exceptionalism is apparent in the vision of civics education in Louisiana, as is a certain idea of the concept of freedom, which limits space for students to develop their own ideas and ideologies.
There are no civics standards in Louisiana from grades 4-8. Third grade is the last mention of standards directly related to civics until high school. Elementary standards for civics education, which occur at the K-3 level, exclusively require students to perform thinking functions such as “describe,” “explain,”” define,” “identify,” and “compare and contrast.” There is no evidence of participatory orientation to civics education, nor any sign of student-centered learning mandates that require higher-order thinking or the creation of original work. There is evidence of character education in the approach to ideas of “fairness, responsibility, respect, and hard work” as important character traits; these traits are in alignment with Louisiana 1999 legislation regarding character education programs, which identifies desirable character traits as “honesty, fairness, and respect for self and others.” The examples in the Kindergarten and first grade standards regarding the importance of those traits leaves room for harmful implementations and portrayals of good citizenship and valuable character traits. For example, the suggestion that “following rules and recognizing consequences of breaking rules” is important could position students as followers of rules they have no connection to based in fear of consequences rather than positioning them as emergent participants and involved members of a community who get to be part of rule making processes.
There are also signs of a character-orientation in the mention of civic virtues within the second grade civics standards. The learning objective regarding those virtues is “describe,” so students are expected only to “describe civic virtues including voting, running for office, serving on committees, and volunteering.” Civic virtues are associated with conventional ideas of civic participation and students are ensured practice with these methods of civic engagement as they are only required to describe them. Another civics standard in second grade approaches a harmful idea of meritocracy by expecting students to “describe how hard work, good habits, consistent attendance in school, and planning for the future can help you achieve your goals, including attending college, learning a trade, and having a successful career.” Though the idea of moving towards a sustainable adult life is relevant to approach in elementary education, the wording of this standard seems to construct a vision of life that lies outside of the context of the inequities and injustices of U.S. society, which make it more difficult for some individuals to achieve those goals based on their social identity. The third grade civics standards have a bureaucratic orientation evidenced through content regarding the founding documents of the nation with perfunctory mentions of the same civic virtues as the early grade levels and one standard requiring students to “describe how and why people become citizens of the United States,” which is an expansive ad complex question for third graders to address without sufficient scaffolding and factual context.
In high school, students have the opportunity to take a year long civics course. One of the Sample Scope and Sequence Documents concerns the high school civics course and provides a year-long overview of a recommended way to teach civics in high school. The suggested course format consists of six units, only one of which has any indication of an orientation other than bureaucratic. That unit is titled Politics and the Role of the Citizen and is the 4th unit presented in the six-unit course scope. The first three units are sequentially dedicated to the foundations, structure, and functions of the U.S. government, and the last two units of the course center on economics. Each unit is described with an overview, details on instruction, and recommended forms of assessment. The Politics and the Role of the Citizen unit contains one central topic on the theme of Interplay between Individual Agency and Mediating Institutions. The document contains instructional tasks that are pertinent to the different unit topics. There are seven civics instructional tasks relevant to the topic of individual agency and mediating institutions. Each instructional task is presented in the format of a lesson plan, with clear guidance for educators on which materials to use and how to proceed through a structured process of learning. The instructional tasks are embedded within each topic of each unit and are explicitly connected to the learning objectives and assessments.
One sample task is in regard to the topic of Civil Rights and Voting and highlights voting as the essential right and responsibility of citizens. Most instructional tasks within the voting lesson plan recommend educators to engage the whole-class in discussion of various media regarding voting and the final learning objective is for students to write their own essays in response to the compelling question “how important is voting in a democracy.” The two recommended assessments set forth in regards to civil rights and voting require students to “participate in a discussion about civil rights issues” and “write an essay” about the importance of voting. Though these two objectives do expect students to perform higher-order thinking functions with the mandates to “participate” and “write,” it is unclear how educators are meant to scaffold each student’s participation in discussion or whether the writings students create are ever meant to reach a real-world audience. Overall, the high school standards regarding civic participation allude to participatory orientation with learning mandates such as “develop,” “contribute,” and “engage,” but the learning objectives associated with these active verbs rarely require individual creation of original work, favoring instead small-group work, discussions, or writing regarding prescribed bureaucratic learning content. Furthermore, questions of individual agency are limited with compelling questions such as “to what extent are individual citizens able to influence public policy” rather than positioning high school students as citizens who are already able to practice influencing public policy through various means.
The Louisiana Student Standards for Social Studies appear comprehensive but lack content regarding civics education. Essentially, students in Louisiana are expected to receive civics education from Kindergarten through third grade and then participate in one year of civics learning in high school that fails to position students as active citizens with developing senses of agency and individualized notions of civic responsibility. There is ample material regarding the implementation of the social studies standards provided to educators through the Louisiana Department of Education website, as local teachers can access Companion Documents for the social studies standards in grades 3-8, Sample Scope and Sequence Documents for grades K-8 and each high school course, and Distance Learning Documents for grades 3-8 and select high school courses. Civics education in Louisiana is sparsely defined and reveals little evidence of a participatory orientation. Overall, putting the social studies in context of the expressed intention behind the standards implies a goal to indoctrinate students in accordance with the ideology of American exceptionalism. The ideological bias behind the standards limits the scope of civic learning that students in Louisiana could receive by creating barriers to multiple means of civic participation or engagement through excluding other ideas or criticisms regarding civics and the nation. There is a distinct lens through which the state superintendent sets forth the Louisiana academic standards, through which local educators could interpret them, and through which students might receive the civics content.