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Social Studies: Is it History?

Districts, especially in poor areas, struggle to give adequate social studies lessons while meeting NCLB requirements.


Walk into any low-performing middle school classroom in your district and you may be shocked to find children unable to identify the state or country in which they live. Many may not know the continents or the U.S. president. "By fifth grade kids should at least know what the U.S. Constitution is and the Bill of Rights and know that we have a president, a Congress and a court system," says Peggy Altoff , social studies facilitator for Colorado Springs (Colo.) School District 11 and past president of the National Council for the Social Studies. However, because such basics are not being taught at the elementary level, kids in middle and high school are not performing well, according to Altoff . "At any low-performing school, they spend most of their days on reading, writing and math."

It's year six of the No Child Left Behind law, and social studies has suffered greatly. In spite of the public outcry over the law's testing mandates and limited federal funding, some educators believe most of the public doesn't know about core academic subjects being squeezed out of the K12 public school curriculum. Given that social studies education isn't tied to high-stakes testing, instructional time for it has taken a significant hit, particularly at the elementary grades, since the implementation of NCLB. This has educators deeply concerned about their ability to prepare children to become active citizens and about the long-term viability of the nation's democracy.

"We expect the public schools to educate citizens," says Cathy Roller, director of research and policy with the International Reading Association. "Social studies are a major player in that arena and are integral to teaching a sense of civic duty and how all of the important things about a democratic society work."

According to a 2007 report from the Center on Education Policy, which surveyed nearly 350 school districts across the nation, 44 percent of districts reported cutting time from one or more subjects or activities at the elementary level, including social studies.

While the National Alliance of Black School Educators, which supports some aspects of NCLB, has not taken an official position on the subject, Executive Director Quentin Lawson says that programs such as social studies, art and physical education started getting squeezed out years before NCLB was implemented. "It's clear that to any educator over the past 10 or 15 years there has been a major constriction of some very important subjects that are essential to our culture and general intellect," Lawson says. And squeezing out such subjects "was exacerbated and almost legalized, or moralized, as a result of NCLB."

Low-Income Pupils Suffer Most

Gayle Y. Thieman, president of the National Council for the Social Studies, says that schools with high minority populations and low socio-economic status are suffering the most. "What's really criminal about that is the enriched curriculum that all kids deserve is still taking place in districts with high-achieving kids," says Thieman.

Altoff agrees. "Kids in schools with higher levels of poverty are less likely to get social studies than those in more affluent schools," she says. Altoff is concerned, as are many of her colleagues, that with a discrepancy in exposure to social studies education comes the risk of creating a society that is divided between those who know what a difference they can make as citizens and those who don't. Some call it the civic achievement gap. "Students getting less social studies are less likely when they grow up to vote and less likely to contribute," Altoff says. "These are things we see as barometers of citizenship."

The danger of failing to provide students with strong course work in government, economics and geography, according to Thieman, is that they are ultimately unable to work together to solve public problems because they don't have the knowledge to do it. This can lead them to allow others to make public policy decisions for them.

"History/social studies is the one subject that provides the context for helping students understand that they are a part of the social network in which we operate," says Cricket F. L. Kidwell, director of curriculum and instruction for the Trinity County Office of Education in California, which has 28 schools.

On the bright side, this presidential election shows a "huge resurgence of youth interest," Thieman adds. "But we have to make sure that they have enough history knowledge and background, as well as geography, economics and government to be able to decide what mind of change they want," Thieman says. "Our young people are saying they want change, but do they know what we've already tried? To make an assessment of the candidates requires they have some historical knowledge."

Are Schools Expanding the Achievement Gap?

By limiting or eliminating social studies from elementary education, many argue that we are setting children up for academic failure. Without early exposure to social studies-related content and skills-global awareness, financial and civil literacy, information and media literacy, critical thinking, problem solving, communication, collaboration, historic reasoning and spatial reasoning-pupils in middle and high school would likely lack knowledge and vocabulary necessary for success in history classes. Overall reading and comprehension skills would tend to be put at risk as well.

According to Roller, particularly children in grades K-4 who are not exposed to social studies education are not gaining essential vocabulary, conceptual and world knowledge. Without the content background about government, economy or geography, by the time students get to middle school, they don't understand what they are reading when presented with social studies. "It's extremely shortsighted not to teach social studies in K4," Roller says.

Reading assessments at the upper elementary and middle school levels, which include social studies material, are assessing not just word identification but comprehension. A great deal of comprehension is about having the background, vocabulary and conceptual knowledge to interpret the words. For example, if students encounter a passage about the War of 1812 on a reading assessment, they have a greater likelihood of comprehending the passage and scoring higher if they've previously studied the topic.

Students from low-income families, or those eligible for free or reduced-price school lunch, on average scored lower on the National Assessment of Educational Progress's (NAEP) U.S. history test in 2006 than those from higher-income families. The gaps between those in the lowest income levels and the highest were 31 points in fourth grade and 28 points in eighth grade. Similarly, on the NAEP civics tests, fourth- and eighthgraders from low-income families had lower scores in 2006 than students from higher-income families-by 28 points and 30 points, respectively.

Encouraging Lower Intellectual Skills

In most states, social studies tests have primarily multiple-choice questions, and many argue that this has led to lower-level intellectual skills. Students in middle and high school must memorize names and places, not write a historical or a persuasive argument.

What's happening more is that students are learning about individual subjects in a vacuum, which detracts from the richness of the curriculum and their understanding of what they are learning and how it applies to their lives.

"What's really criminal about that is the enriched curriculum that all kids deserve is still taking place in districts with high-achieving kids."

Kidwell urges administrators to consider whether or not students are engaged in learning activities such as debate or mock trials in the classroom, which would help them develop higher-level thinking skills and teach them how to evaluate sources of information and develop the participatory skills they need to be functioning as productive citizens in society. She acknowledges that these modalities are more difficult to measure. "But we're sophisticated enough in the field of education that we should be able to find other measures to quantify the impact of high quality instruction and curriculum," Kidwell says.

Democracy Is Not a Given

Our students should go into the world feeling that they are part of society and the government process. Many would argue that our country has fallen far short of that goal. The social studies curriculum at the elementary and, increasingly, the middle school level is being squeezed out.

"U.S. history will continue to be taught, hopefully at the middle school level and certainly at the high school level, but that's all you can say," says Thieman. "Is learning about U.S. history one time enough to ensure that our students know how to be active citizens? Do they have enough understanding of world history and geography to even know where events that have an impact on our global society are occurring around the world?"

"Democracy is not a natural state," Thieman continues. "It has to be taught; it just doesn't happen. Just because you were born in a democracy doesn't mean you're going to die in a democracy."

In the meantime, the federal education budget for 2008 has little or no money for geography and economics classes and includes cuts in fourth-grade civics and U.S. history, Altoff says. However, a recent NCLB reauthorization bill from the House of Representatives includes a provision for assessing other content areas beyond reading, writing, math and science. Altoff is hopeful that advocacy efforts for more social studies in elementary grades are making a wave.

Lisa Zamosky is a freelance writer based in San Diego.