A law passed in 2021 makes civics education a required class in middle school, and earlier this month, the state Board of Education approved the academic standards for that new course.
Middle school students will take the course the second semester of sixth grade, effective with the 2023-24 school year.
School districts will have flexibility in how they teach those standards and what specific topics they might want to address, state officials say.
“It’s important to note that standards are not curriculum. The state sets academic standards, and then schools develop a curriculum to teach those standards,” said Holly Lawson, Indiana Department of Education spokeswoman. “Local context is key as schools establish the curriculum that best meets their needs.”
The standards cover foundations of government, function of government and role of citizens. Some provide examples, although most don’t.
One standard calls for students to describe and give examples of individual rights guaranteed by the Bill of Rights. Examples include freedom of religion, speech, assembly, the right to due process as well as the right to be protected from unreasonable search and seizure.
Yet another, under “role of citizens,” calls for students to use a variety of informational resources to identify and evaluate contemporary issues that involve civic responsibility, individual rights and the common good.
Examples listed include responsible use of the internet; smoking in public places; payment of property taxes; development of highways; and housing on historic lands.
Many of the standards are general and lack specifics or examples. Some observers raise concerns the standards do not address the history of Black Americans and other people of color.
Crystal Reynolds, who frequently writes about the history of minority groups and individuals in Vigo County, said civics instruction is important.
Students need to learn more about the Constitution and how local, state and federal government operates. “We’ve really got to do better at educating our young people to make them educated voters and good citizens,” she said.
Indiana ranks near the bottom nationwide in voter turnout.
But civics also “has got to be taught with diversity in mind,” Reynolds said. The US Constitution “is a beautiful constitution, but it was also a flawed constitution” that never mentioned the word slavery.
Civics education needs to include why the 13th and 14th amendments were necessary, she said. The 13th Amendment abolished slavery, while the 14th Amendment gave citizenship to all people born in the US The 15th Amendment provided that the right to vote could not be denied based on “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”
The Constitution founding documents also left out women, Reynolds said.
State Rep. Tonya Pfaff, D-Terre Haute, and a teacher, is a member of the Civics Education Commission that reviewed the civics standards.
The new sixth-grade course is designed to allow school districts the flexibility to decide what civics topics best meet the needs of their community, rather than the state mandating what is taught, Pfaff said.
She advocated for a middle school civics course and believes waiting until high school is too late. “The earlier we can get our students educated about how our political structure works and affects them, the better informed they will be and hopefully more likely to be engaged as a citizen,” she said.
An outside view
The Fordham Institute, a nonprofit conservative think tank, gave Indiana comparatively high marks for the quality of its civics and US history courses in a 2021 analysis, according to Chalkbeat Indiana. One weakness cited in the report, however, was that the standards provide “little attention to Indiana’s past legal discrimination.”
Commenting on the new sixth-grade civics standards, the Fordham Institute’s Amber Northern stated in an email, “I think the standards are better than what we typically see in other states, which often opt to include overly broad concepts and no detail. Indiana refers to to specific content and includes examples in many of its Grade 6 standards. “
But, Northern added, “They also have a number of vague standards as well that could use more specificity. It’s obvious that the standards writers know how to write a strong standard but it’s unclear to me why they wouldn’t choose to do so for all of the Grade 6 standards. “
According to IDOE’s Lawson, the state Academic Standards provide a broad guide of knowledge and skills that students should build across all grade levels. Parents, educators and other stakeholders from across the state review these standards every six years, and they serve as a framework to guide local schools.
In standards, “Specific examples are generally avoided in an effort to not limit instruction or students’ learning,” Lawson said.
The Indiana Department of Education will publish a resource guide later this year to support schools in developing curriculum for the new sixth-grade course.
In Vigo County, affected teachers will meet with an IDOE social studies specialist in October to learn more about the changes and how to navigate them, said Katelynn Liebermann, VCSC spokeswoman.
In addition to the new resource guide, IDOE will host a live, virtual professional development session through the Indiana Learning Lab on Aug. 17, Lawson said. This training will be recorded and available for anyone to view at any time.
Also, IDOE will provide in-person trainings for educators in each of Indiana’s education service center districts during the 2022-23 school year.
Chris McGrew is president-elect for the Indiana Council for the Social Studies and also teaches a secondary social studies methods class at Indiana State University. The council will be involved in the IDOE’s October visit to Vigo County, he said.
Affected middle school teachers may not feel adequately prepared to teach a civics class, he said.
“This is where the Indiana Council for Social Studies and other social studies organizations really want to step up and provide professional development for teachers. But we’ve not heard anything about funding,” McGrew said. “It looks like it’s an unfunded mandate. We hope that’s not the case.”
The recently approved standards “are not really new,” he suggested. But they are reorganized to be taught in sixth grade.
According to IDOE, some existing social studies standards now taught in sixth grade have been re-arranged to be taught in either seventh or eighth grade.
The new middle school civics requirement came out of the Civics Education Task Force, chaired by Lt. Gov. Suzanne Crouch, that sought to find ways to improve civics education. All public, charter and state accredited private schools must offer the course.
The task force issued a report in 2020 with many recommendations, and McGrew hopes the middle school class is just a first step. “My fear is it will stop here,” he said.
The task force report called for more funding for professional development and recognition of schools and teachers doing a good job in civics education.
It is also called for Indiana colleges and universities to increase civics and political science course requirements for future teachers. If more of the task force report is implemented, “I think it’s positive and something we need,” McGrew said.
He has some concerns the middle school changes may have “marginalized geography and maybe a little bit of economics.”
McGrew adds, “At least we’re heading down the right path. We’re starting to say in the state of Indiana that social studies are important. Civics education is important,” McGrew said.
The author of the bill requiring the middle school class, Rep. Tony Cook, R-Cicero – a retired school superintendent and government teacher – also serves on the Civics Commission.
According to Chalkbeat Indiana, during a May meeting in which IDOE presented the standards to the Commission, Cook recommended adding more specificity to the standards, citing examples such as the Supreme Court rulings Brown v. Board of Education, which ended legalized school segregation, Roe v. Wade, which legalized abortion and Miranda v. Arizona, which upheld Fifth Amendment rights.
While Cook was not available for an interview with the Tribune-Star, he provided a statement:
“As a former government and US history teacher, principal and superintendent, I knew that Hoosier teachers would both want and need resource guides. This includes a list of specific documents that are critical to understanding our country, its founding and our continuing efforts to make it a more perfect union. I recently had a productive conversation with the Indiana Department of Education on outreach efforts, and reviewed the standards for this newly required course. I feel confident that we’re going to achieve the intent of the law, which is to ensure future generations are educated and engaged, and responsibly practice their civic duties and interests. “
Others reacting to the standards include Linda Hanson, co president of the League of Women Voters of Indiana.
“We applaud the proposed civics standards as the impetus for preparing students to participate effectively in a democracy. It is our hope that the one semester in sixth grade will be augmented by further opportunity for civics education,” she said.