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Utah’s civics standards were last revised in 2016. Strands of civics standards are embedded into the social social studies and history curricula at the elementary and middle school level and one stand-alone US Government and Civics course in high school. The introduction of the standards for this course lays out the principles that guide Utah’s understanding of quality civics education. These include that it should “nurture desirable dispositions including a commitment to the American ideals of liberty, equality, opportunity, and justice for all”. The Utah civics standards exemplify values of American exceptionalism that are infused into character education at the early elementary level and heavily bureaucratic education in the upper grade levels, and prepares students with only theoretical knowledge of how to participate in the conventional political process.
The K-2 social studies standards emphasize character education, promoting good behavior and principles such as cooperation, responsibility, and fairness. There is also a distinct emphasis on patriotism and national and state symbols. At this level, several standards require students to “demonstrate”, “participate”, “predict”, and “practice”, showing a commitment to modeling activities that students are expected to apply outside the classroom. However, much of this active participation is centered on the concepts of rule following, respect for authority, and patriotism. It is clear that Utah emphasizes learning that follows the rules of the current system and status quo, with a notable absence of standards that ask students to think critically and act as agents of change. This exemplifies a particularly dangerous form of character oriented education.
The grade 3 through 6 social studies standards have a different guiding theme for each grade level: Community and Culture, Utah Studies, United States Studies, and World Studies. The introduction to the 3-6 standards states that the framework for each level is guided by four essential understandings: “We have human rights and responsibilities; We are globally interconnected; We create systems of power, authority, and governance; Continuity and change over time are part of life.” At this level, students focus more heavily on the structure and function of government as well as rights and responsibilities that correspond with each geographical sphere. Unlike the lower elementary levels, there is little to no mention of students being asked to model the behavior that they are taught. They are asked to “analyze”, “compare”, and other similar thought processes. The main mentions of democratic participation involve voting and jury duty, as well as responsibility for others in their communities. Again, there are no standards that ask students to think critically about current systems or act as agents of change.
At the 7th and 8th grade level, civic standards are incorporated into Utah Studies and United States History courses. At this level, students are asked to employ research skills to analyze political changes throughout state and national history, as well as understand the structure and function of government. There is a notable addition of an emphasis on problem solving that does not exist at the elementary level. For the first time, students are called upon to engage more critically with the institutions they learn about through conducting research on current issues, developing viable solutions, and both presenting and defending those solutions to appropriate stakeholders. However, the orientation towards civic education is largely bureaucratic at the middle school level, and the standards lack a requirement for meaningful participation.
Utah’s high school social studies standards include a half credit course in United States Government and Citizenship, which is required for graduation along with passing a “Basic Civics Test” based on the USCIS naturalization test. This requirement can be replaced with the AP US Government and Politics or other college equivalency exam. The course content mostly focuses on the structure and function of the three branches of the national government, as well as one strand focusing on fiscal decision making and one on the US’s relationship to the world. Some active participation is included in the curriculum. For example, students are asked to propose and defend budget priorities at the local, state, tribal, or federal level and craft an argument about the United States’ role in the world. However, the main skills that students seem to be asked to demonstrate are described using verbs like “explain,” “analyze,” and “evaluate” without much emphasis on active participation skills. This is a large missed opportunity considering this course is recommended for high school seniors specifically for their proximity to voting age.
Overall, Utah’s civic education standards demonstrate a basic commitment to prepare students for life in democratic society. However, there is a notable lack of emphasis on active participation skills at the middle and high school levels, and where it is emphasized in the early grades, a heavy focus on following existing norms gives the impression that Utah’s students are being taught that to be a “good citizen” one must unquestioningly obey rules and uphold American exceptionalism. This aim is spelled out specifically in the introduction to the US Government and Civics course, which says that students should “engage in dialogue regarding American exceptionalism, in a sense of the special character of the United States as a uniquely free nation based on democratic ideals and personal liberty.” A bureaucratic focus for much of the upper grade levels shows that students are asked to develop a deep understanding of the structure and function of government and founding documents, but are not asked to think critically about state and federal laws and institutions. Likewise, participation is not emphasized much beyond traditional methods for engaging with institutions, like voting and jury duty.