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What future can social studies education have under the Common Core?

By the Notebook on Nov 15, 2012 02:59 PM

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. 

The opinions expressed in this post are solely the opinions of the author. The Notebook invites readers to submit guest posts on current topics in education. Send submissions to

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Comments (12)

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on November 15, 2012 3:12 pm
For the 2012-2013 school year, the School District hired English/Social Studies teachers. It is possible to be certified in English and add social studies by taking the praxis. (The praxis for social studies, in my opinion, is too easy. The pass score is one of the lowest required by the state.) This allows an English teacher to teach social studies without necessarily knowing anything about historiography, history / social studies pedagogy, etc. I have seen this far too often in high school - principals select an English teacher and give them social studies classes. The principal care about one thing - reading test scores. While social studies / history requires the teacher to be well versed in teaching reading and writing (not just assigning reading and writing), there is far more to teaching social studies / history. Too often social studies classes taught by English teachers end up being read the textbook, answer questions, etc. There is little respect for those of us with expertise in teaching social studies / history.
Submitted by History Teacher (not verified) on November 15, 2012 5:57 pm
All history teachers who have been in the district for at least 6 years know that we fly under the radar. Ours were the first benchmarks to go, because (at my school at least) we were told we had to score them ourselves, and they had DBQ's as part of them. Until Keystones for Social Sciences come out, if the money lasts that long, we will continue to be a "non-factor" but credit for graduation only class. Because the powers that be that make the test will argue for ages about what content from each subject should be included. Until that point, we should be educating our students to be civic-minded and engaged citizens hopefully using documents as evidence of methods from the past. But the writing was on the wall about the value placed on social studies education when the CCS came out and there were no social studies specific standards, and we were basically told there were no plans in the immediate future to see any. The district has only removed the dates from the PST and kept everything else the same
Submitted by Rich Migliore (not verified) on November 16, 2012 7:45 am
I really enjoyed your commentary Marc, especially since I am such a strong advocate for democracy in education and believe that all of us, especially those running our school district need to review our Constitution, its history and what it means to us as Americans and what it means our democracy itself. I will say it again: Democracy is the purification process for the ills that plague our schools -- the Constitution cannot be allowed to stop at the schoolhouse door. Neither can the deep study of our Constitution be allowed to stop at the schoolhouse door.
Submitted by Elliott Seif (not verified) on November 16, 2012 3:57 pm
For many years,social studies has taken a back seat to other subjects. This was exacerbated by No Child Left Behind, which totally ignored social studies. In fact, a number of meaningful, important subjects for children have been either ignored or taught poorly because of No Child Left Behind -- social studies, science, and the arts, to name a few. The emphasis on traditional tests, along with reading and math skills, have left most schools focusing on factual learning, memorization, low level thinking, and sterile reading and math activities devoid of content. What we really need is a different paradigm for teaching and learning. While the Common Core standards may be helpful in reviving an emphasis on thinking through text analysis, we need to focus on building powerful and meaningful curricula that focus on inquiry into essential questions and big ideas, emphasize authentic performance and application of learning, foster deep thinking, reflection, and creativity, make learning relevant and interesting, and actively engage children in the learning process (such as through project based learning). This will only happen when we change our assessment focus to determining children's learning and progress through multiple types of assessments -- performance tasks and project results, written products, self-reflections, and other means collected over time into portfolios of student work. The Keystone Exams will actually set us back further in pursuit of a 21st century education. Schools that buck the current expectations, such as Science Leadership Academy, are now in the forefront of educational excellence, and are the few that are really preparing our students for the future.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on November 16, 2012 3:29 pm
The School District does not allow neighborhood schools to have real options when it comes to curricula. We are told to prepare students for "the tests." Only magnet schools, like Science Leadership Academy, are allowed alternatives to a test / drill and kill curricula. Until the School District allows all schools - not just highly selective magnets like SLA - to do more than teach to the test, not much will change.
Submitted by Tim Gearhart (not verified) on June 9, 2014 2:10 pm
Elliot, thank you for your comments. I not only agree with you, but have developing a process of teaching the Social Sciences that is effective for all subgroups 3rd-12th, and focus on human motivations and how they affect the flow of history. Essential questions and Big Ideas at the core of this approach. Those other elements you mentioned are integral in this learning process, and uses Common Core Language Arts standards as a tool through which to approach Social Science skills. It also addresses the real-life APPLICATION of these analysis and interpretive skills, adding to the students' bag of survival skills. A problem that we've encountered is the lack of teaching skills when it comes to History and/or Social Sciences. As a Social Science teacher at a local state university, I was appalled by the lack of basic historical understanding of teacher candidates concerning the History/Social Sciences. They just wanted to "teach"/read the text and test memorization. No true understanding of why or how incidents happened were thought to be important! We need to begin "preparing our students for the future" you mentioned by first preparing PROPERLY our teacher candidates as well!
Submitted by ES (not verified) on June 9, 2014 3:05 pm
I'd love to see your curriculum. Anything you could send me would be greatly appreciated.
Submitted by Chris Udall (not verified) on November 16, 2012 5:01 pm
Social Studies, the dying class in school. Seriously, whats the point? Schools today waste a ton of time going over things that could be spoken about in 1 class, if not removed entirely.
Submitted by Marc Brasof (not verified) on November 17, 2012 7:47 pm
I am currently at the National Council for Social Studies conference in Seattle and have some promising news on the Common Core. The Council of Chief State School Officers has formed a politically and geographically diverse collaboration that is to produce a framework and learning standards for the social studies (civics, economics, geography, and history...debate emerged about those choices). This framework is focused on inquiry, research, evaluative thinking and presentation. So while it does not specify content, it provides conceptual framing to build content around. The example used was the civil war. the framework and standards will be used to help students think interdisciplinary about the civil war and evaluate our understanding of it rsther than just memorizing facts. However, this new tool, which could have tremendously positive implications for state standards and district curriculums, is a tool and not necessarily apart of the Common Core as of now. They are working with the assessment consortiums and this is a developing policy.
Submitted by Terry Ruddy (not verified) on November 19, 2012 8:46 am
As a 20 year social science teacher in California I have watched the history class fortunes rise, and mostly fall as a function of our role in the C.S.T.s (California testing). One of our few highlights, the Teaching American History program is dying out as funding becomes scarce and nothing on the horizon suggests much, except more is expected with less. Common Core uses all the buzz words spectacularly well, as noted in the above commentary. Our English teachers in particular love the word "interdisciplinary", do I need to explain why? One quick note, I was fortunate enough to work in partnership academy where a number of the lessons were truly interdisciplinary and not just History teaching English. So the English teachers and A.P.s involved speak glowingly of it while the Math and Science teachers are not so kind. I was raised not to use the words our History folks have been say saying in public. And what everyone keeps avoiding is the word content. Forgive me for what I believe is the simplest conclusion, content once again will once again become the standard. And as the standards will finally start to creep towards content, every interest group will want to see their issue represented at length. So eventually a thousand will be represented at the most basic level, vocabulary. History classes will once be pushed to cover too much content in too little time using vocabulary as a reference, in a classroom with students who average 5 years below reading level. I would love for Common Core to prove me wrong, you have my full support.
Submitted by Milsey (not verified) on November 22, 2012 10:48 pm
I actually preferred teaching Social Studies to English because it WASN'T so test-driven. Unfortunately, there is no respect for it in the PSD. You are only allowed to spend 30 minutes a day. Precisely what can you meaningfully accomplish in that time?
Submitted by Stani Thomas (not verified) on April 17, 2013 7:11 am
when we analyze yet those colleges are giving the education of Engineering whether management, Information technology and other’s management courses, In such case what happen students tell about our college is best in amongst all colleges. Engineering colleges in Jaipur.

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