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Articles: Social Studies

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Many social studies teachers are nervous about the coming of Common Core State Standards. With so much emphasis placed on literacy, social studies teachers fear they will see content slashed to leave time for meeting English’s non-fiction standards.

Already reeling from a lack of attention from the benchmarks put in place by No Child Left Behind, those devoted to social studies feel like they are once again on the outside looking in. However, could the implementation of Common Core actually bring social studies back into focus?

Lakeside High Ga. compete

In the weeks leading up to a presidential election, it’s hard to dismiss the importance of civic education, with campaign speeches, debates and advertisements blaring everywhere. Yet the National Assessment of Education Progress reports that only one-fourth of high school graduates are proficient in topics such as the American political system, principles of democracy, world affairs and the roles of citizens.

There was a time when it seemed a day didn’t go by without reading about Michelle Rhee, the former chancellor of the District of Columbia Public Schools. Rhee, known for her passion for raising student achievement—and for her aggressive style—became a symbol for the new school reform movement.

While looking at maps may belong to an old-fashioned approach to geography, digital mapping, the collection of all kinds of data from space or the ground, has changed the game. Geo-technologist Joseph Berry works on the cutting edge of those changes.

Elementary and middle school students in a Reach the World (RTW) project in New York City learn geography and how it relates to learning.

Geography isn’t what it used to be. Nowadays, that subject is often buried—and therefore inadequately covered—in a social studies curriculum itself under siege because of the extended commitment in schools to reading and math.

Singapore girls

If the results of the most recent international achievement tests were graded on a curve, U.S. students probably would rank somewhere in the B range.

Ten years may have passed, but the memory of Sep. 11 remains vivid in the minds of those who lived through it. Although students may have been very young or not yet born, when the World Trade Center was attacked, educators have found ways to memorialize at their schools and in their curriculum. Building fragments, particularly, have made their way around New York, Connecticut and New Jersey. A steel beam from the North Tower was delivered to Barnegat Township (N.J.) School District and will be displayed at the district's high school.

Black Students Union demonstration

On April 26, students from the Tucson (Ariz.) Unified School District's Mexican-American studies classes, angry that these courses might be eliminated because of a state law targeting programs that advocate "ethnic solidarity" and "the overthrow of the United States government," barged into a school board meeting, chained themselves to the board members' chairs, and banged and chanted until the meeting was canceled. When the board reconvened on May 3, so did police in riot gear, and seven people were arrested.

In an effort to help stop bullying against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) youth, school district leaders can look to various organizations for help. And in what is considered landmark legislation, California Senate passed a bill on April 14, which was signed by Gov. Jerry Brown on July 14, that will require public schools to include lessons in part about the historical contributions of gays and lesbians in their curriculum.

Ask any random college educated American adult to recall the processes of cell respiration so painstakingly memorized in freshman biology, or to rehearse the dates of the Progressive Era that had been absorbed as part of the standard American history survey course, and you're likely to receive a blank stare, proving something that cognitive scientists have been shouting from the rooftops: Coursework focused on memorization of a broad body of content knowledge will not produce the sort of learning that lasts.

On the heels of a Florida pastor's announcement of an International Burn a Koran Day this past September and protests over a planned Islamic community center near Ground Zero in New York City, the topic of teaching Islam in public schools is gaining more attention—but this attention is yielding different results in different places.

In Oshkosh, Wis., second and third graders build houses out of milk crates, the teacher simulates a flood, and they talk about how home insurance works. In Chicago, high-school social studies classes take field trips to places like the Chicago Board of Trade and the Federal Reserve, to learn about markets and banking.

"Every state is different and unique in its education system," says Don McAdams, founder and president of the Houston-based school-board training and consulting firm Center for the Reform of School Systems. "But Texas is one state that is really different and unique." The state's tumultuous history, huge size, high poverty rate and English language learner population have created "an overall sense of urgency" when it comes to education, McAdams explains.

In May, the Texas State Board of Education (SBOE) will hold a final vote on a new social studies curriculum to be used for the next seven to 10 years by Texas' 4.7 million K12 students. Because its textbooks are standardized at the state level rather than by individual school districts, Texas has the second-largest market in the nation, and publishers scramble to get their books chosen. The high cost of creating different editions for other states prevents publishers from forming alternate editions; thus, Texas' standards are often replicated for use in other states.