Social Studies, Mastering Content and Skills
History, geography, economics, civics and government subjects included beneath the "social studies" umbrella are defined in No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation as core subjects. But "social studies is getting short shrift in the classroom as teachers and administrators focus almost exclusively on achievement test results in math and reading," claims the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS). Supporting the Council's assertion are the results of a 2006 survey by the Center on Education Policy that found 33 percent of school districts reported reducing social studies instructional time "somewhat or to a great extent" to devote more time to reading and math. According to the 2003-2004 Schools and Staffing Survey, instructional time for math and English/language arts has increased, but time spent on history and science has decreased.
Calling this shift in priorities an unintended consequence of NCLB, NCSS sent a letter to Congress in early 2007 reminding the nation's elected representatives of the importance of social studies in preparing K12 students as citizens. Such preparation must begin in elementary schools. For example, the 2001 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) results in U.S. history found that fourth-graders whose teachers spent more than 180 minutes a week on social studies scored higher in U.S. history than those whose teachers devoted less time. Experts are therefore concerned that too little time in the content area in the early grades will leave students unprepared for social studies classes at the secondary school level and for high school exit exams that currently include social studies or history in 11 states.
What instructional practices might help students do better in social studies? The 2001 NAEP data offer insights: In U.S. history, higher average scores were associated with reading from a textbook almost every day (grade 4), using primary historical documents weekly (grade 8), and reading extra materials such as biographies (grade 12). Use of computers for report writing and Internet research was also associated with higher average scores (grades 8 and 12). Cooperative learning also received attention as a strategy well suited to the purposes and requisite skills of social studies, and several studies have linked cooperative learning to improved student achievement across grade levels and subject areas (e.g., Slavin 1991; Karnes & Collins 1997).
Recently, greater attention has been given to improving students' literacy skills in the content areas. In 2004, the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) issued a reminder that middle and high school students should "encounter academic discourses and disciplinary concepts" for teachers to "show, demonstrate, and make visible to students how literacy operates within the academic disciplines." Reading and writing in the social studies can provide such opportunities for students to learn and practice discipline-specific skills, analyze and critique information sources, interpret data and synthesize ideas. The social studies also offer fertile ground for students to apply critical thinking and literacy skills as they "raise and explore questions about beliefs, claims, evidence, definitions, conclusions, and actions" (Patrick 1986).
Generally, however, current practices in K12 schooling and teacher education constrain the integration of literacy and content-area instruction, says University of Michigan professor Elizabeth Birr Moje (2006). Even in the primary grades, teacher editions of social studies textbooks may not guide teachers to incorporate literacy instruction, according to an analysis of textbooks performed by Kragler, Walker and Martin (2005). These researchers recommend that teachers instruct students in strategies that aid reading comprehension: activating prior knowledge, generating questions while reading, constructing mental images to represent meanings, summarizing text and identifying important information (Pressley 2000).
After reviewing the research in adolescent literacy, the federally funded Center on Instruction recently published guidance that includes five recommendations for improving literacy-related instruction in the content areas (see box). Included in the document are detailed suggestions and summaries of supporting research. Perhaps most relevant for district administrators is the Center's conclusion that "schools or districts need to provide professional development to support these practices in a planned, sequential way."
A lesson learned through the Alabama Reading Initiative is that content-area teachers in secondary schools also need ongoing support to incorporate explicit comprehension strategies (National High School Center 2006). "Hire a literacy coach," advises the Center on Instruction. Recently developed Standards for Middle and High School Literacy Coaches (International Reading Association 2006) describe the ideal coach as a skillful collaborator, evaluator of literacy needs and instructional strategist.