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Evolution of Federalism

Essential Purpose

The federal system provides numerous opportunities for citizens to participate in their own governance. The system reflects the principle of popular sovereignty, and it enables citizens to hold their governments accountable. Citizens who understand the reasons for this system of dispersed power, design, and students who keep current on public policy questions are in a good position to evaluate, to monitor, and to influence it effectively.

Preamble to the Constitution
This module provides an opportunity for students to understand what federalism is, why the framers adopted it, and why there has been controversy over how federalism should be applied in specific cases. Students will learn how federalism is set forth in the United States Constitution, how it has changed over time and especially how it was modified by the activist government of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and how it remains a subject of controversy today, especially since the 1980s when efforts have been made to move some powers of the federal government back to the states and people in a devolution revolution known as the New Federalism.

Additional Information

National Civics Standards

Standard 3. How does the government established by the Constitution embody the purposes, values, and principles of American Democracy?

  • Standard 3A. How are power and responsibility distributed, shared, and limited in the government established by the United States Constitution?
  • The American federal system. Students should be able to evaluate, take, and defend positions on issues regarding the distribution of powers and responsibilities within the federal system.
  • Describe historical conflicts over the respective roles of national and state governments and the importance of the Tenth Amendment.
  • Evaluate the respective roles of national and state governments in the contemporary federal system.

State/Local Standards

States should align this module to their own state/local standards as appropriate.

Essential Questions

  1. How are federal and state powers and responsibilities distributed, shared, and limited by the United States Constitution?
  2. How has the relative power of federal versus state governments changed over time?
  3. Why will federalism continue to be a source of controversy in the United States?

Essential Content

  1. In nations, the relationship between central and regional governments may be organized in one of three ways:
    1. as confederations
    2. as unitary systems
    3. as federal systems
  2. The Framers of the U.S. Constitution adopted a federal system.
    1. In federal systems, power and responsibility are divided and shared between a national government, having certain nationwide responsibilities, and state governments having certain state and local responsibilities.
    2. The U.S. Constitutions overall design and specific features identify powers of the national and state governments and also place limitations on their powers (i.e., some powers are given to the federal government, some are reserved for state governments, some are shared by both governments, and some are denied to either or both governments).
    3. The U.S. federal system provides numerous opportunities for citizens to participate in and hold their governments accountable.
  3. Controversies have accompanied the U.S. federal system from past to present.
    1. The federal system at times has enabled states to deny the rights to some of the people dwelling within their boundaries.
    2. There have been frequent controversies related to the question of how much power should be in the hands of the federal government versus how much power should be in the hands of state governments.

Essential Skills

According to the Center for Civic Education, which produced the National Civics Standards, The content standards in… [the National Civics Standards] document specify not only the content to be mastered in civics and government, but also what students should be able to do in relation to that content. These standards include, either explicitly or implicitly, a specification of the intellectual and participatory skills students should acquire.

Following are examples of the intellectual skills from the National Civics Standards, which are used in this module:

  1. Identify. To identify things that are tangible (ones representative) or intangible (justice). To identify something may involve being able to (1) distinguish it from something else, (2) classify or catalog something with other items with similar attributes or, in some cases, (3) determine its origin.
  2. Describe. To describe tangible or intangible objects, processes, institutions, functions, purposes, means and ends, qualities. To describe something is to be able to give a verbal or written account of its basic attributes or characteristics.
  3. Explain. To identify, describe, clarify, or interpret something. One may explain (1) causes of events, (2) the meaning or significance of events or ideas, (3) reasons for various acts or positions.
  4. Evaluate a position. To use criteria or standards to make judgments about the (1) strengths and weaknesses of a position on a particular issue, (2) goals promoted by the position, or (3) means advocated to attain the goals.
  5. Take a position. To use criteria or standards to arrive at a position one can support (1) one may select from alternative positions, or (2) create a novel position.
  6. Defend a position. To (1) advance arguments in favor of ones position and (2) respond to or take into account arguments opposed to ones position

In addition, the activities call on students to use these additional, complementary skills:

  • Interpret, organize, and communicate information and ideas
  • Apply concepts and other ideas to new situations thoughtfully and appropriately
  • Identify cause-effect relationships and evaluate claims regarding them
  • Analyze issues and solve problems
  • Conduct productive research into the workings of governments and issues of governments and governance systems
  • Communicate clearly and convincingly
  • Participate with classmates in collaborative efforts

Summative Assessment

This summative assessment and scoring guide should be reviewed with students prior to using the activities in the module. Students should do the assessment after the activities have been completed.

Essential Questions Addressed by the Summative Assessment

  1. How are federal and state powers and responsibilities distributed, shared, and limited by the United States Constitution?
  2. How has the relative power of federal versus state governments changed over time?
  3. Why will federalism continue to be a source of controversy in the United States?

Printable Student View

Prior Knowledge
Now that you have learned how federal and state powers are distributed and shared; and how federalism continues to evolve over time, you are ready to think about whether the federal government has overextended its powers and is involved in areas beyond its jurisdiction as defined by the U. S. Constitution.

Your brother who is in the fifth grade is getting ready to take the state test in math and reading. He says that his school has to do well on this test or their school will get a bad reputation and be labeled as a failing school by the national government. You have even read in the paper that some schools across the country are in danger of losing federal funds because of low test scores.

As a high-school student your government class has talked extensively about the distribution of power between the federal government and the states and you are sure you heard that education is primarily a state responsibility. In fact, you checked the Constitution and found out that the responsibility for education is not even specifically mentioned in the Constitution. You are now wondering why your brother is taking a test required by the national government and having such consequences for your school if the students do poorly on it.

You have decided to send an e-mail to the Secretary of Education in Washington, D.C. asking for more information. Before you write your email, you decide to meet with your teacher to clarify the questions you want the Secretary to answer.

Your questions need to relate to:

  • A better understanding of the need for the national government to become involved in No Child Left Behind
  • The role of the national government in education versus the state role in education
  • The critical issues related to federalism involved in this legislation

Now compose your email, starting each paragraph with one of your questions and providing background information from your class discussion which:

  • Summarizes what you already know about the question
  • What aspects of the question need additional clarification

Scoring Guide

Updated December 30, 2019 10:37am