Social Studies

Revamped Florida Civics Education Aims for ‘Patriotism.’ Will It Catch On Elsewhere?

By Ileana Najarro — July 12, 2022 10 min read
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For years Florida has been cited as an exemplar when it comes to investing in access to K-12 civics education. In the 2010s, it boosted civics coursework and related tests, and inspired other states to do the same.

Now, the state’s approach to civics is evolving in a new direction: towards an overtly patriotic approach that some educators say is imbued with Christian and conservative tenets. And all of that is occurring as Florida’s law limiting classroom discussions on race—a key theme in social studies—takes effect.

Gov. Ron DeSantis has prompted the changes through several years of rapid policymaking. In 2019, he signed into law House Bill 807 that required a review of the state’s K-12 civics standards. By July 2021, they had been fully revised. The approved changes are set to take effect in the 2023-24 school year.

In all, the revisions emphasize American exceptionalism while downplaying hands-on instruction, such as conducting mock elections. A new set of training courses for teachers focuses on the country’s founding ideals and religion’s role in that foundation. And an influential conservative private college, Hillsdale College, has played a role in reviewing the new standards and consulting on the course.

What quality civics education looks like has been contested for years, but now Florida’s approach could set a new national precedent.

Already, the state’s approach is generating imitations. Civics Alliance, a conservative coalition of policymakers and academics, used Florida’s new civics standards as a model for its own national set of proposed guidelines, released late June. Arizona passed legislation in June containing passages lifted straight from a 2021 Florida law that, among other things, requires students to learn about the “blessings of liberty” and the “victims of other nations’ governing philosophies.”

“What is coming with these standards and where they seem to be leading, I am fearful that it’s going to become a prevalent idea in education,” said Shannon, a civics teacher in Florida. She asked to only be identified by her first name because she wasn’t authorized to speak with the press by her district.

Patriotism, the new goal of civics education?

The idea of what quality civics education looks like in K-12 schools has evolved over time.

In the 1990 and 2000s, states disinvested in the subject area and social studies. iCivics, a nonpartisan curriculum and advocacy group, recommends a full year of civics in high school, but only six states now do that. And only seven states have a standalone civics course requirement in middle school, said Shawn Healy, the group’s director of policy.

Florida now has both. It led a renaissance in 2010—approving legislation that required a middle school course and matching assessment.

When it comes to the content of civics, a key question in the field has been how to strike the right balance of teaching love for one’s country while also being able to critique its history. For instance, how do teachers best address the clause in the Declaration of Independence that all men were created equal when slavery persisted for years after its signing?

That debate got especially heated in 2020 following George Floyd’s death at the hands of police, the resulting protests, and the emergence in 2021 of debates over how to teach about race.

With federal support spanning administrations, iCivics and its partners attempted to strike a balance. In a road map released last year, it called for “reflective patriotism” in civics education that allows space for students to reflect on whether the country is meeting ideals set out in the founding documents, said Louise Dubé iCivics’ executive director.

With its latest revisions, Florida has leaned heavily on patriotism. Patriotism, and American exceptionalism in particular, are now the main ideas behind the state’s revised civics standards, said Stephen S. Masyada, director of the Florida Joint Center for Citizenship at the University of Central Florida. The nonprofit has helped implement the state’s civics requirements and was among those who contributed to the new standards.

Masyada says that instilling a sense of civic pride is the goal with the new civics standards, but “we’re not talking about jingoism, we’re not talking about an uncritical sense of patriotism.”

But finding ways to both commend and critique the country, as iCivics has suggested, could prove to be a bit more challenging for Florida teachers. They now also face separate legal restrictions, also supported by DeSantis, on how they can teach about race in classrooms.

The state is one of 17 that has passed such restrictions to counter so-called critical race theory in classrooms. It’s not clear how it will affect how teachers approach darker chapters of American history, including slavery.

New civics standards draw questions from educators

The revisions to Florida’s civics standards are wide-reaching. They include changes in phrasing to existing benchmarks, the addition of new benchmarks, and the removal of hands-on activities like mock elections and service projects.

Many additions were made at the elementary levels. For instance, kindergarten teachers will now have students learn to “define patriotism as the allegiance to one’s country,” which includes identifying patriotic holidays and observances.

In 7th grade, the year when students are tested on civics, the standards now make mention of the importance of religious liberty and are more prescriptive in their language. Students must analyze the advantages of the U.S. form of government over other forms, rather than compare and contrast.

Public comments made during the revisions process touched on concerns of bias in some of the proposed changes, including concerns over the injection of religion in the standards.

“Please stop telling the students what to believe when comparing the US to other nations,” one comment reads. “It is acceptable to compare nations but the students should come to their own conclusions. It is our job as educators to teach children how to think, not what to think.”

Another said: “Please remove references to religious values in civics. There is no reason to include this except as trying to promote specific religions.”

Shannon, the Florida teacher who has taught middle school civics for 11 years, is uneasy about such changes. She feels that there needs to be a greater emphasis on how students can be active participants in democracy, rather than the existing focus on the intricacies of government, which always felt to her like more of a high school level topic, she said.

What most concerns her is the focus on patriotism—specifically the confusion over how she is meant to teach it.

“We think some of the difficulties are going to be that the word patriotism has become such a trigger word, and we’re wondering how this is going to impact our kids who are old enough to have witnessed the last several years,” she said. “And getting them to understand that patriotism doesn’t look like January 6.”

Many students at her alternative school have had run-ins with law enforcement early on in life. She’s not sure how to teach about equal treatment under the law to students who have experienced the opposite, and is worried that it will make it harder to build trust with them.

Florida’s new restrictions on how race can be taught also pose thorny new challenges. Masyada said that the negative aspects of American history will be covered in summer training sessions, but state law prohibits instruction that requires students to “feel guilt, anguish, or other forms of psychological distress for actions, in which he or she played no part, committed in the past by other members of the same race or sex.”

Asked about this issue, Masyada said: “The real focus here is making sure teachers can straddle that line.”

“You can approach this material, you can be honest about this material, but you need to keep your opinions separate from it,” he said. “Stick to the primary sources, stick to the facts, and then you’re doing your job as an educator.”

Shannon said she’s not sure how to navigate a critical lens on patriotism while also not running into the new Florida law.

“I just see a lot of difficult conversations coming up,” she said.

Messaging in professional development also draws concern

If the language of the standards themselves already drew questions from educators, the ongoing summer training sessions have fueled concerns and confusion.

The Florida education department anticipates more than 2,750 educators will attend its trainings. And with $106 million backing the initiative—including an online certificate course for teachers debuting this fall—it’s an investment meant to set Florida apart.

“I think definitely the intent here is to really serve as a model for other states,” Masyada said.

An education department spokesperson said that the trainings were closed to the press.

High school teachers attending one of these trainings in South Florida were alarmed at the focus on “Christian and conservative ideology,” The Miami Herald reported last month. Training slides published by the newspaper include messages, for example, stating that it’s a misconception that “the Founders desired strict separation of church and state, and the Founders only wanted to protect freedom of worship.”

A separate slide stated that “2/3 of the Founders held slaves—[but] even those that held slaves did not defend the institution,” seemingly downplaying the Founders’ role as enslavers.

Shannon, who attended a training last month, questioned the emphasis on Christianity in a session on the ideological origins of the country. “We’ve always taught that freedom of religion means you can practice or not practice in any law-abiding way that you feel without intrusion from the government,” she said. “And this just felt very, ‘Well, the whole country was founded on Christianity.’”

She added that there was less of a focus on pedagogy and more of a recap of fundamentals such as the branches of government and a review of founding documents.

“I was confused as to why I was being told things that as a civics teacher, I already know,” she said.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks at a news conference, Monday, Feb. 7, 2022, in Miami.

State Commissioner of Education Manny Diaz, Jr. has defended the training sessions, saying that the Florida education department “will ensure that instruction remains focused on facts, especially in the context of American history, to provide an accurate depiction of our nation’s founding. Partisan indoctrination in the classroom is over.”

A variety of groups have contributed to the training, among them Masyada’s group, the right-leaning Bill of Rights Institute, and the conservative Hillsdale College of Michigan, a private Christian college.

Hillsdale College in particular played an active role in the revision of the standards and the program, according to the Miami Herald. The college did not respond to a request for an interview with Education Week.

But at an event it sponsored in February, Hillsdale College President Larry P. Arnn spoke with Gov. DeSantis, noting its influence on what students learn.

“There are several states where Hillsdale College turns out to be a prime influence on the teaching of civics and other things in the state,” he said. “And Florida is the one where it was easy, and it was easy because they’re competent, these people.”

National impact already emerging

As Florida moves forward with its new approach to civics and social studies, there’s already at least one state paying close attention.

A new law in Arizona requires students to engage in “comparative discussion of political ideologies, such as communism and totalitarianism, that conflict with the principals of freedom and democracy that are essential to the founding principles of the United States of America.”

That’s the same language of Florida’s 2021 law requiring such instruction in high school. It seems to implicitly point students towards a favorable view of capitalism and the U.S. system of government, and when Florida passed it, supporters said that it would help curb surveys showing some Americans have a favorable view of socialism.

And the conservative Civics Alliance coalition cites Florida’s new civics standards as a source for its national social studies standards called “American Birthright.” It claims Florida “used a proper pedagogy to teach K-6 students about America.” An education policy development director of the Florida education department is also cited as an expert consultant for the project.

The group contends that “far too many education professionals work consciously or unconsciously to minimize, delegitimize, or eliminate the history and the ideals of conservative Americans—and, indeed, the history and the ideals of moderate Americans and of classical liberals.”

And it offers state lawmakers advice on how to push for social studies reforms. It says “governors should appoint superintendents who are dedicated to the cause of social studies standards reform, and who will themselves appoint more reformers to the state education department.”

An example they cite? Florida’s own Gov. DeSantis.

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