by Marc Brasof
Over the last few decades, the time that students spend in social studies classes has been shrinking. Between 1987 and 2003, the average amount of instructional time devoted to social studies in public schools in a year decreased 18 hours, according to a 2011 study by the Thomas Fordham Institute that evaluated the history curriculum standards of each state. During that same period, the amount of time students received instruction in English and math rose. Students were spending three-and-a-half times as many hours sitting in English and math classes as they were in science and social studies classes.
Under No Child Left Behind, student assessments are based mostly on English/language arts and math performance. Many schools that struggle to improve yearly test scores have thus opted to spend more time on those tested subjects. Some schools have even axed social studies altogether, those class hours replaced with more test preparation. In other words, with schools valuing only what’s tested, regardless of curricular mandates, social studies instruction disappears.
This is an important lesson to consider when states, responsible for establishing learning standards for public schools, are now agreeing to implement the new national curriculum standards known as the Common Core. States were asked to adopt the Common Core in exchange for desperately needed federal funding. Although some scholars have found that the arguments in support of Common Core are flawed, more troubling is the quality of these standards in terms of history and civic education. They only emphasize literacy skills, like reading and writing, and are void of any language that requires upper-level critical thinking, such as a conceptual understanding of the causes and consequences of history.
This dangerous development not only continues the destructive practice of high-stakes testing, but also undermines the freedom of educators to develop teaching methods that value historical inquiry over the regurgitation of facts. What gets lost is the type of learning design that engages students and develops creative thinking.
One recent report on civic education by the Leonore Annenberg Institute showed that students retain little knowledge about our country’s history and its civic processes. This is what happens when we focus not on inquiry, research, and presentation, but on fact regurgitation. When we allow narrow standards and high-stakes testing to be the engine of reform, we are left with an education system that produces students who are merely reciters of facts, recallers of dates, and repeaters of formulas. They lack a deep understanding of what the knowledge they retain means and are unable to evaluate that knowledge critically.
What, then, should history and civic standards look like in the curriculum to ensure that students have opportunities to develop into informed and engaged citizens? This is not an easy question. Even beginning to answer it requires a core understanding of what history really is.
The histories written about our country’s past are often competing narratives. Collectively, they provide us a more nuanced and fuller picture of what actually happened. All histories told have values driving them, values that both illuminate and obscure the facts. The reality is that we use history -- a reconstruction of what we believe happened along with claims against the evidence presented -- to help us understand our present and sometimes even to support our views of what the future should look like and how to get there.
The teacher’s job is not to point out which narrative has more merit, but to facilitate students in making their own conclusions. This is not rewriting the past -- no one can do that. Great social studies teachers understand this and teach students the skills and concepts that drive historical inquiry, research, and presentation. These features of historical study undergird the basic requirements of citizenship that democracies need to thrive. When we do this well, we are preparing the next generation of leaders, preparing them to understand and tackle the complicated and pluralistic nature of our society. When we do this poorly, with too much fact regurgitation, we only swell the forces that shape unproductive, divisive discourse.
As policymakers move forward with the implementation of the Common Core, it is important to ensure that schools have the freedom to balance instruction and assessment with a high-quality curriculum, in history classes especially. But I fear that the Common Core's requirement for literacy skills in both history and English classrooms could have a very different effect.
The standards, as of now, suggest that more non-fiction texts be examined in English classes, while requiring history classes to increase their focus on reading and writing skills. Although such collaboration between subjects at first may seem like progress, recent history with NCLB and high-stakes testing suggests another possible outcome: more focus on literacy, less focus on history.
While specifying some examples of great primary texts that students should read and learn to analyze, the Common Core standards do not actually require that any history content be taught. Students might read history texts but fail to receive history instruction. It may very well be that English classes be mandated to act as history classes.
In other words, at some future point, will history and civic education classes be replaced with longer English classes in low-performing schools in order to improve test scores?
Marc Brasof was a founding social studies teacher at Constitution High School. He is now pursuing a doctorate in educational leadership and policy studies and teaches pre-service teachers at Temple University. Brasof is also the National Constitution Center's Education Fellow.
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