How Montana’s Revamped Focus Makes for Better K-12 Civics Education

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Civics education has become a flashpoint in American politics. Many schools are asking how students should learn about themselves and their country in a way that fully encompasses American history, both good and bad.

Montana Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen recently updated the state’s standards for social studies to better teach students about civics and the things they need to know to be good American citizens.

When asked what she hopes Montana’s students are getting out of their civics education, Arntzen responded, “That our country is a great country. … We did not want a king. … And I believe that’s where our republic is and our republic is founded. That yes, there are symbols that have come across from monuments, from our flag, and our Pledge of Allegiance, and all of that. And I believe all of those parts are to be honored.”

Arntzen joins the show to talk about those changes to the social studies standards, as well as offer insight on how other states can do better with their civics education standards.

We also cover these stories:

  • Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., justifies his cautious stance toward Democrats’ unprecedented $1.75 trillion spending package as a result of Tuesday’s election.
  • For the first time in more than a decade, the Supreme Court hears arguments in a major Second Amendment case.
  • Florida second grader Fiona Lashells joins Gov. Ron DeSantis on a Fox News segment, after the little girl was suspended from school for refusing to wear a mask.

Listen to the podcast below or read the lightly edited transcript.

Doug Blair: Our guest today is Elsie Arntzen, a former teacher and member of the Montana Legislature who currently serves as the superintendent of public instruction of the state of Montana. Elsie, welcome to the show.

Arntzen: Oh, it’s a pleasure to be here. It’s good to have that Western voice, the voice of reason, I’ll put it that way, especially in public education, where there seems to be some discourse at this point. And we want in Montana to make sure that local control is controlled by our state and our locally elected officials.

Blair: Well, absolutely. We are so excited to talk to you a little bit about what you’ve done in your state and how Montana is leading the way in certain respects in terms of civics and other things. So, first off, I wanted to bring you on the show to talk about some of the steps that you’ve taken in Montana to emphasize civics in social studies in your schools. So to begin with, what exactly does your job as the superintendent entail?

Arntzen: Oh, thank you. I’m one of very few that’s elected. So, I’m a constitutional officer for the state of Montana. And that means it’s a “we the people.” I work for the Montanans. I work for children. I work for school districts. I work for everyone—taxpayers, of course.

Forty percent of all of the education flows from our taxpayers and we’re getting older in Montana. I think we’re one of the six aged states of where we are in America. So wanting to make sure that the investment of public education has value, and I’m responsible for all of that value.

Blair: I was looking at your current social study standards on the Office of Public Instruction website and I grabbed a few examples of some of the new standards for 2021. For example, second graders need to learn how to demonstrate ways to show good citizenship in the classroom, school, and community; while fifth graders will examine the diverse origins, ideals, and purposes of rules, laws, and key United States constitutional provisions and other foundational documents. Quite a mouthful. But what can you tell us about these new standards compared to the other standards?

Arntzen: The other standards—well, as state superintendent, I have in my care 11 teaching and learning standards, and one of them is social studies.

My dad was an American history teacher, so I learned civics at the kitchen table and going and really living history. I don’t know how many trips I made out to monuments that may not be there right now because of the challenges within our nation and the culture that I believe exhibits right now of saying “no.”

So social studies, it was an honor for me to open this up. An honor for me personally, from my father’s standpoint.

And social studies before was in third grade, fifth grade, eighth grade, and a smattering of high school, whether it was world history or American history. I brought over 100 Montana voices to the table, and we looked at these and we understood that it shouldn’t just be in those classes, in those grades.

It needs to have a continuity from the time you enter public school to honor America, to honor our Montana Constitution, and more importantly, to honor in that Constitution that we hold so dear in Montana Indian education for all.

We’re the only state that really embraces this, not just in words, but in our funding formula. Dollars go out, precious dollars go out to our schools to aid in teaching about Indigenous history and that interplay between where Montana became a state in 1889.

So in every single grade right now, our social studies standards are robust and they are deep, original documents in every single one of them.

We had legislation just most recently passed that we are champion stars and stripes in every classroom. So the pledge is being said. So just understanding and honoring from the time you enter public school in Montana to the time you get that great diploma at the end that American history, civics, education, geography, and honoring our Indigenous warriors is there in every single grade.

They went live July 1 of this previous summer. So we’re just beginning unwrapping and aid and having our 20,000 teachers and teacher leaders across our state understand what that means, because it hasn’t been done for almost two and a half decades.

Blair: Right. One of the things that I kind of find really fascinating is you’ve mentioned that there was some controversy about some of these topics, right? So how have you responded to some of these topics? For example, critical race theory or white privilege or some of those other things in Montana schools, do those affect the social studies curriculum that you’ve set up?

Arntzen: They’re not in any of our social studies curriculum. Well, I shouldn’t say curriculum. We only invest in the state standards. The curriculum, because we’re a local-controlled state, then mirrors what those state standards are and wanting to make sure then that there is a capacity for teachers to know how to teach. So that’s my role, and that’s enabling those teachers to know how to teach this.

So we knew critical race theory was there. We knew it was coming and we knew it was in Montana. And so rather than backing away and making sure that it was maybe in the darkness, we brought this way into the light.

I asked for an AG opinion in April and he came forward in May, which has the force of law to say you cannot subject a child, an individual in public education in any framework with critical race theory, because that would subject that child to discrimination. You can’t talk about privilege in Montana and isolate it just as that and demean a child, scapegoat a child with anything.

So basically what I have done with critical race theory is bring it into the light and say that, yes, it’s a theory. But more importantly, it’s the actualization of how it’s taught that cannot be taught. Discrimination is not allowed in Montana and it is not allowed in public schools in Montana.

Blair: One of the things that I did think was important to note while I was reading through this, and you mentioned this when we were talking about some of these new standards, was that there are a lot of references to learning about the Native tribes in the region.

I feel like this kind of runs counter to that narrative that a lot of critical race theory people push. That the people who are against critical race theory, for example, are trying to whitewash or ignore our history.

So how important was it for you guys to have education surrounding Native Americans in the social studies standards?

Arntzen: It’s my duty, my duty as an elected official, to follow our Montana Constitution. It’s embedded in our Constitution that Indian education for all is part of every single standard in Montana. And that’s why it’s important to unwrap those other six standards that we have, math and reading, to really make sure that we honor our Indigenous cultures and come together right or wrong, good or bad, whatever happened, let’s purport it out there in a manner that students can learn from this.

The other thing that we are doing is we are embracing Native language. And culture is language. So our elders in our state, we want to make sure that we house that language, that our children that are in our Native schools, our public schools on our reservations in Montana, that they understand who they were and understand that there were challenges, but also understand who they can be.

And I think that’s the purpose of education right there, is to uncover everything and move a student toward success, not away from success, but push them toward success. That’s incumbent upon public education.

Blair: I’m really glad that you mentioned sort of your goals for kids going through the public school system. I’m curious, what do you view as a successful civics education for a Montana child? When they’ve graduated from high school, what should they know? What should they be able to tell you? What should they have kind of internalized from their schooling?

Arntzen: That our country is a great country. That our country came, where we did not want a king, that we wanted [representative] government. And I believe that’s where our republic is and our republic is founded. That yes, there are symbols that have come across from monuments, from our flag, and our Pledge of Allegiance, and all of that. And I believe all of those parts are to be honored.

So if there’s one thing that I would like a public school child to know, and to go all the way through to them becoming a young adult, is to honor our great nation and to understand the turmoil of how we became the United States of America. And not only that, but as a constitutional officer for the state of Montana, to understand why Montana in 1889 joined this great nation and wants to continue part of that great nation’s future.

Blair: Moving on from civics to another topic that you’ve been very passionate about recently, which is parental rights and parental engagement in education in state schools—so what has your state done to sort of bolster parents’ rights in education and how have these changes been received by the parents of Montana?

Arntzen: Well, thank you. I believe the role of government is one that needs to be by the people. So I have listened—I don’t know how many Montanans, over thousands of Montanans that I’ve listened to on both sides of this. In other words, you need to trust the trustees. Of course, you do. And you need to trust our locally elected trustees. Of course, you do. But you need to also trust the parents.

I’m a parent, I’m a grandparent. And I firmly believe that you cannot have public education in isolation. You need to listen to the community. And that community voice is parent. That parent voice is powerful and you cannot have a math lesson be successful without having a parent at that kitchen table helping.

And if we didn’t learn from the pandemic, when everybody was thrust into that homeschool model or that isolation of where parents had to be that teacher and aid in that classroom in moving education forward, if we didn’t learn from that, then where are we now?

Right now, we need to have a partnership with parents. We need to have a partnership that’s greater than PTA with parents, teachers. We need to have that partnership to make sure that public schools, especially in Montana, are that gold standard and that bright standard. It is not an us vs. them scenario. This is a time when we heal. This is a time when we come together, where we’ve learned and we move forward.

Blair: Now, there has been some tension between certain government organizations and certain other organizations and parents involved in education. The National School Boards Association sent a by now-infamous letter that basically called parents domestic terrorists. How do you respond to those sorts of things? The attorney general said something similar. So how do you respond to those claims?

Arntzen: From someone in a place of power at this time, it seems that it was overwhelmingly challenging to, again, come back to an us vs. them discussion where we’re centered on our children.

When I first got into office—and very few states elect my position in public education, so I firmly believe that it is a “we the people” discussion. To put an us vs. them scenario, to have a divisive comment from an association that is gleaned from taxpayer dollars—so we give dollars, state, we entrust these associations with dollars, but yet they’re used as lobbying for political purposes. That to me is something that shouldn’t happen in the role of public education.

I’m elected. Yes, I’m political. But my role to purport student success means that children do not have an “R” on their backpack nor a “D” on their backpack, nor should they be politicized by an association. Government needs to act as government. Associations do not need to act as these lobby groups that they have done at this point.

Parents aren’t lobbyists, but they are champions. They’re champions for their children and for their children’s success. Let’s bootstrap those parents. … In Montana, that’s what we call it. Let’s bring them forward and move them up.

If we do that and engage parents in this discussion, our social, emotional health of our children, because of coming out of this virus and the pandemic and the isolation that’s occurred, it’s going to be better. It’s going to be brighter.

I had an at-risk youth behavior survey from the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] that we gave during the pandemic this last spring. Forty-one percent of our young adults in high school said that they are clinically depressed. The next step is suicidal ideation. We don’t need that in Montana. No community needs to have that challenge. And our flags not need to be at a half-mast because of a mental health crisis that we have.

If we have more of a divisive discussion around education, then our children are going to suffer. So let’s as adults arise above that, let’s communicate together, let’s move forward. My position is on healing in my role, more so than on a divisive action that came from a letter that, in my mind, was nonsense.

Blair: On that note … [former President Barack] Obama made some recent comments on school boards, where he referred to “phony trumped-up culture wars.” And instead of stoking anger aimed at school boards and administrators who are just trying to keep our kids safe, we should be making it easier for teachers and schools to give our kids the world-class education they deserve and to do so safely while they are in the classroom. What are your thoughts?

Arntzen: It was a one-sided discussion. And I would hope that someone in his role as a previous president would have looked at the entire 360 degrees of individuals working so hard in public education. And that is the parent. That’s the bus driver. That’s everyone that supports. That’s the aid. That’s everyone that makes sure that those students are safe in learning, that make sure that they have great opportunities to learn, and that there is a promotion moving forward. But an us vs. them scenario does not need to come out of a previous president.

We need to make sure that we, again, my message is on healing. My message is on moving forward because we know what the battle is. And the battle is making sure that our students are going to become bright stars wherever they may live in their community. And it’s their success that public education is about. It’s not about the adults at this time. It’s about our children and moving them forward, whoever they want to be.

Blair: Right. On the topic of some of those things that we would be teaching our children, some of the things that have sort of come up at a lot of these meetings are sexually graphic books and sex education that have been available to minors in a variety of different settings. So, is there a right way for schools to approach sex ed? And then, how can parents monitor to make sure that their children not being exposed to things that are inappropriate?

Arntzen: So, I’m going to come back to government. Great government is transparent government. And schools, public schools are government. They’re an arm of government. I believe it’s imperative that parents do know, more importantly, that students understand what is being put in front of them in a curriculum manner.

Now, in the state of Montana, I’m in charge of the standards and the standards are the floor. Curriculum builds up from that floor. So it is important that that local school district show transparency, what is being taught? In college, isn’t that a syllabus? That should be the same thing in pre-K all the way up through everything in public education.

It is about transparency, making sure when it’s taught, how it’s taught, and more importantly, from my level in licensing, to make sure I have the best teacher in front of those students—whether it’s in a digital world or whether it’s brick and mortar and we’re back in person, that we have the best in front of our students, knowing that transparency is the key and the glue to moving forward to that gold standard of public education.

Blair: Given that we’ve talked a lot about building up, if we were to sit down or you were to sit down with somebody who is a school board member or maybe a teacher who is critical of some of the changes that you’ve made both to the social studies standards and how you’ve empowered parents, how would you explain the decisions you’ve made to them?

Arntzen: Ah. I would talk about boardsmanship, especially to a school board member. To honor the words that are being given to them, active listening, to making sure that they understand and ask those questions rather than being very silent.

I believe school board policies and those policies that originated may not have the force of law. And they need to understand that their actions and their reactions are critical at this time.

So if they are not attuned to the person at the microphone, whether it is a public member or a teacher or anyone that is asking questions of them or wanting more information, if they’re not actively participating, then their role as an elected official needs to be elevated higher. They need to listen more. They need to communicate more. They need to work harder.

If their day at work is hard one day, they need to come to work the next day and work harder. That’s what I’ve always talked about in my role in government, to go into the storm, not to run away from the storm. To be transparent and say, “Yes, this is a difficult decision. Let’s see if we can come to some sort of a consensus, moving the student forward.”

In other words, it is not about the role of the adult anymore. If we focus on putting our children first, it’s a better community, a community of school, it’s a better community of learning, it’s a better community period, a better state, and it’s a better nation moving forward.

Blair: As we begin to wrap-up this interview, I’m curious if you have any recommendations for people who are education officials, or maybe your equivalent in other states, as they begin to navigate these questions of parental involvement in education and reformed civics education?

Arntzen: It’s about getting involved. School board elections come in the spring, in Montana they do. I would say, please get involved. If you would like, if you’re a teacher and you want to be a teacher leader, I can help you in the pathway of becoming who you may want to be.

When we remark back onto our students, we would never close a door for them. We would want to offer great opportunities. So for someone in my role that’s in government, whether they’re elected or whether they’re appointed, we need to make sure that we are doing everything in our power for those children for a greater opportunity. And if we put up a wall or put a hurdle up, like what has happened by calling parents domestic terrorists and demeaning an opportunity for a student, then we are stopping that student from being successful.

Our main goal in public education is for the future. If we put up something right now in our present that’s going to encumber someone in the future, our role as adults is wrong. Let’s change the path to right. Let’s make sure that our children have every opportunity to become whoever they want to be to better themselves, to better their community, to better their state, and to better our great nation.

Blair: Well, thank you so much for that. That was Elsie Arntzen, a former teacher and member of the Montana Legislature who currently serves as the superintendent of public instruction at the state of Montana. Elsie, thank you so much.

Arntzen: Thank you. And blessings.

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