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Social Studies On the Outside Looking In

Redeeming the neglected curriculum.
social studies

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?

Organizations such as the National Council for the Social Studies and the National History Education Clearinghouse have begun mobilizing to advocate for dedicated social studies curricula aligned with Common Core. At this point, some district leaders and state department of education representatives are listening.

What Common Core Means

The Common Core State Standards say little about social studies as a core curricular subject. Instead, in the K5 standards, social studies are lumped within non-fiction reading and literacy standards, under the hard sciences and technical subjects. While grades 6 through 12 get some direction, standards still focus on social studies as a means toward non-fiction literacy.

Some standards include instructing students to cite “specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources, connecting insights gained from specific details to an understanding of the text as a whole,” and to analyze in detail “how a complex primary source is structured, including how key sentences, paragraphs, and larger portions of the text contribute to the whole.”

It may appear that specific expectations in content have been removed from social studies standards. But Steve Armstrong, president-elect of the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS) and head of the social studies department in the West Hartford (Conn.) School District, says the Common Core literacy initiatives enhance the teaching of social studies.

“I am aware that many ‘content based’ teachers fear that if social studies teachers at the middle and high school levels are now responsible for reinforcing Common Core literacy skills that they will be losing precious time for the teaching of [social studies] content,” Armstrong says.

However, if students can master Common Core literacy skills, they would be able to read historical texts more deeply and make more comprehensive arguments, Armstrong adds.

Gaps in Common Core Standards?

While Armstrong is optimistic about Common Core implementation, some experts of social studies education point out specific and important gaps in the standards. Last September, Michelle Herczog, vice president of NCSS and a history/social science consultant for the Los Angeles County (Calif.) Office of Education, says that depending on each student’s path after high school, they need to be prepared for citizenship, which means being informed, responsible, and engaged members of society.

Armstrong adds that students need to learn skills and attitudes that lead to a job or career, but they also need to learn how to become educated citizens. And he wonders how this can be done with the reduced emphasis on the subject, given the new standards. “With so many puzzling and disturbing events gripping the world and the nation, we need citizens who can intelligently understand and hopefully positively influence some of what is occurring,” Armstrong says. “This is becoming more difficult as students are graduating with less knowledge of how to accomplish such things.”

It was in response to this concern that the Los Angeles County Office of Education developed the guide, “Preparing Students for College, Career and CITIZENSHIP: A California Guide to Align Civic Education and the Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts and Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science and Technical Subjects” as a framework for ensuring that civic education in California aligns with Common Core and is included throughout K12 curricula.

Herczog, who wrote the introduction to that framework, says the standards were designed to be “robust, provide a clear and consistent understanding of what students are expected to learn, and be relevant to the real world.”

As the paper states, students are given the tools to understand what democracy is and how it functioned in the past. Similarly, these standards give students the necessary instruction in America’s constitutional system so they can be active citizens who participate in their government. In keeping with Common Core, “each series of lessons calls for students to actively participate in activities that strengthen reading, writing, speaking, and listening skills in the context of civic dialogue, debate, persuasion, and action.”

Aligning with Common Core

Many district staff and teachers don’t really know how to implement Common Core and leaders can’t or won’t admit that it takes “a lot of professional development to have it done right,” Armstrong says. One solution would be to have much more cross-departmental collaboration.

“Social studies teachers are being asked to teach literacy skills, some of which language arts teachers have taught for a long time,” Armstrong says. “There should be collaboration across the departments to see that a common approach to these skills is utilized.”

Lynne Munson, president and executive director of Common Core, the organization behind developing the standards, stated in a 2012 online roundtable for the National History Education Clearinghouse that implementing Common Core in English Language Arts need not cut social studies instructional time. She added that using informational texts, such as biographies, speeches, and historical documents, along with literary works, to teach research, writing, and communication skills provide students with a deep and meaningful understanding of history and civics.

The standards also contain history/social studies literacy standards for grades 6 through 12, with a list of recommended texts such as the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution, Gettysburg Address, Letter from Birmingham Jail, and Common Sense, Munson says. And Common Core has created standards-based curriculum maps, available online, that incorporate such texts. These maps are broad, inter-disciplinary thematic units that can be accessed digitally or purchased in print form. They include links to additional resources, vocabulary, and relevant terminology lists, sample activities, and standards checklists. And these maps are rich in social studies content, Munson says.

How it Works

The state of New York has taken Munson’s advice to heart. The state has recently published a draft of proposed new K8 standards that integrate Common Core standards with the central themes devised by the National Council for the Social Studies. While these proposed standards move away from grade-specific “content understandings,” they do maintain social studies as a separate and self-contained field of study.

The Kansas State Department of Education is in the midst of a similar process. In 2012, the department developed exhaustive Common Core aligned standards for social studies in all grades. Like New York, these standards are still in a draft stage and await approval.

In West Hartford, for example, Common Core standards are integrated into traditional social studies content. The units in the curriculum are based on the Connecticut social studies frameworks and the Common Core literacy standards, Armstrong says.

For example, seventh graders learning about Ancient Mesopotamia are asked to develop a thesis question on their own. This meets the Common Core standard that asks students to “conduct short research projects to answer a question (including a self-generated question), drawing on several sources and generating additional related, focused questions that allow for multiple avenues of exploration.”

And in high school, a unit on the Cold War allows students to address the Common Core standard, “evaluate authors’ different points of view on the same historical event by assessing the authors’ claims, reasoning, and evidence.” In U.S. history classes, sophomores are asked to evaluate different perspectives on who “started” the Cold War.

And Armstrong notes that college-level professors rarely complain about the amount of content knowledge first-year students have. Instead, they are concerned that students are entering college without knowing how to read, write, and construct arguments effectively, which the new standards do address well.

In many states, the status of social studies curricula has not yet been settled. In the case of New York and Kansas, for instance, the updated Common Core-aligned social studies curricula are still in draft form. But advocates of social studies education are demonstrating that by embracing the goals of the Common Core literacy standards, social studies curricula can flourish instead of being left out in the cold.

Andrew Dyrli Hermeling is a freelance writer in Pennsylvania.