Guest opinion: Utah Legislature grapples with civics education

Christine Cooke 02

Utah’s discussion about civics education continues.

On Thursday, HB 334 Civics Education Amendments passed the Utah House of Representatives. The bill would authorize the state board to create a pilot program focused on civic engagement projects and provide professional development for teachers involved with the pilot. Now, it’s on to the Senate for further debate. 

For those who haven’t been following closely, civics education has captured the attention of the Legislature this year. 

In fact, last week the Legislature killed a bill that sought to repeal the civics test required to receive a high school diploma. First that bill generated a robust floor debate, then was amended to only create a study group, and then it failed altogether.

So, what’s at the heart of the civics question at the Legislature this session? 

Ultimately, determining the right next step. 

Nobody seems to deny the need for improving civics education. In fact, some are calling Americans’ abysmal understanding of history and civics a “quiet crisis.” And this doesn’t seem too dramatic a description. 

Utah has underwhelming statistics that show how few adults actually vote (we’re ranked 39th in the nation) or can answer basic U.S. history questions (not even half). As a nation, less than 25 percent of U.S. students are proficient in the subject of civics. Only a quarter of Americans can name all three branches of government. And despite America’s past encounters with socialist governments, one of the major political parties is looking to nominate a self-described socialist for president. 

But deciding upon the right next step requires some homework. Here are three things Utah should do as it takes on this effort.

Study the issue further – especially assessment of civics learning

Utah needs to study civics education – especially the outcomes we want and how to assess those outcomes.

Revisions to state academic standards happen periodically at the Utah State Board of Education level, so this topic has been studied to some degree even recently. But policymakers could continue a study on history and civics education in order to flesh out next steps, particularly in the area of assessment. 

Part of the hubbub this session has been an effort to remove the civics test graduation requirement. A legitimate criticism is that the test doesn’t create engaged citizens, which anyone would agree is the ultimate goal of civics education. 

But the Legislature seemed overwhelmingly opposed to removing that test. While the civics test may not reflect fully whether a student becomes an engaged citizen, a lot more information is needed before we are prepared to decide the fate of the test going forward, its role in Utah civics education, and how to assess civics overall. 

Brainstorm ways to focus civics on actual engagement

Although the House passed HB 334, which would create a pilot program for civic engagement, it’s still to be seen what will happen in the Senate. The good news is that a pilot program wisely allows the state to analyze the outcomes of a particular program – but its limitation is that it only looks at one option. 

The best policy is to explore a range of options that support real civic engagement including, for example, a service learning graduation requirement, opportunities for voluntary civics honors or diploma badges, or a new civics scholarship awarded to students demonstrating extraordinary commitment to their community. 

Utah’s next step needs to be a holistic contemplation of how civics can go from a classroom topic to a robust set of attitudes and habits. 

Ensure history education and civics education complement each other 

Civics education is as good as our history education – which is why they should be reviewed together before we launch into policymaking. 

In a world where many believe being “politically involved” is getting into social media arguments, we need to understand the purpose, structure, and meaning of engaging in our government. This comes from knowing our shared story.

America’s origin story and subsequent historical development – including the reason behind our government’s unique structure – answers questions like what it means to be civically engaged and what the purpose of that engagement should be. It can also naturally generate motivation to get involved. 

What the Founders understood about inalienable rights – which are neither given nor taken away by government – is unique in the history of the world. The freedom America has enjoyed is the exception in world history, not the rule. That means the difference between maintaining and losing that freedom is a proper understanding of how unique a gift that freedom is, and how it has been preserved. This knowledge – gleaned from history – kindles a desire to make sure our freedom isn’t lost, which could be prevented by exercising our rights and responsibilities by doing things like attending public meetings of our elected representatives, participating in town halls, and communicating our views as voters to our representatives. 

Rather than civics education funneling people into a type of shallow activism, robust civics comes from a common understanding of and personal connection to our history as Americans. Any state discussion on the next step to take in improving civic engagement should look at history education and civics education as two sides of the same coin.  

Christine Cooke, J.D., a former public school teacher, is education policy director at Sutherland Institute.