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Utah Parents Feel Civics Is One Of The Most Important Subjects In School, But Say It's Not Taught Very Well

An illustration of red and blue hands raised.
K Ching Ching
Most high school students in Utah take just one semester-long civics course, followed by a multiple-choice test to evaluate what they’ve learned.

Sydney Ward thinks she has a pretty good grasp on how the U.S. government works. She’s a freshman at Brigham Young University and works with Student Voice, an organization that helps students get involved in education policy.

But Ward said most of what she knows, she learned outside of her high school classes, in extracurricular activities like her debate team. That’s where she learned how to advocate for ideas and policies, while keeping discussions respectful.

“Debate was the way that I really learned how to apply that kind of logic and policymaking thinking skills to my community,” she said. “I didn't feel like that was reflected at all in my school-required American government classes, where we memorized 20 [U.S.] Supreme Court cases and at the end of the semester, we got a little certificate saying that we knew about government.”

Many Americans, however, don’t have a great understanding of the country’s government and how to participate. A 2019 survey from the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center found that a quarter of those who participated could only name one branch of government. Twenty-two percent couldn't even do that.

“While this marks an improvement, the overall results remain dismal,” said the center’s director Kathleen Hall Jamieson when the results were released. “The resilience of our system of government is best protected by an informed citizenry. And civics education and attention to news increase that likelihood.”

In Utah, parents view civics education as one of the most important subjects in school, alongside math and English, according to a new study from the Sutherland Institute, a conservative think tank. The first round of the multi-part effort was released Monday, which focuses on survey responses from 600 parents in the state.

It found parents were generally satisfied with Utah schools, including the teachers, curriculum and adaptations during COVID — but felt civics education in the state was “below average.” Most students in Utah are only required to take one semester-long course followed by a multiple choice test, said Christine Cooke Fairbanks, an education policy fellow at the Sutherland Institute.

“That's interesting because there has been such a STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics] focus in recent years [and] accountability in math and reading,” Fairbanks said. “We've seen that people believe that civics actually is at that level, even though we don't talk about it in that same way.”

The survey found parents want civics courses to give students an understanding of laws and individual rights primarily, followed by learning about the responsibilities and expectations of citizens and the powers and limits of government. They also want a focus on skills — not knowledge — so students learn to be respectful of others, open-minded and can think for themselves.

“I have no doubt that people understanding civics empowers them,” Fairbanks said. “So if they have a problem or they feel like there's an injustice, they can take it to institutions that they have developed some sort of understanding of. That understanding develops some sort of trust.”

Parents, however, also wanted to have more transparency in what their students were learning. While the survey results found most parents have a high level of trust with schools and teachers, they wanted to know what was being taught.

Over half wanted state guidelines on civics curriculum provided to teachers, but would support reforms like requiring a full year of civics in high school and establishing a formal curriculum for grades K-6. They also preferred projects like capstones and mock government over standardized testing to evaluate student progress.

Ward said one thing she thinks could help civics education is a greater focus on local government. That’s where people have the most at stake and the most power to make change. When people engage with local officials and issues they know, she said, they’re also more likely to act respectfully and be more aware of how their actions can affect others.

Corrected: June 3, 2021 at 2:20 PM MDT
This story has been updated to clarify the description of the Sutherland Institute. The group is not affiliated with any political party, but does advocate for conservative policies.
Jon reports on quality of life issues, education and the economy
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