June 15 — 4:41 pm, 2020

To fight systemic racism, social studies must be a central part of school curriculum

Students need to learn about oppression and about how to overcome it.  

Adina Goldstein

lenfestwalkout1smaller Students from Mastery Lenfest walked to Penn's Landing during the national walkout to protest gun violence in 2018. (Photo: Dale Mezzacappa)

Throughout the past couple of weeks, many Americans have taken a good, hard look at their own roles (or lack thereof) as allies in the fight against systemic racism. Principals, superintendents, and government officials have spoken out, calling for wider curricular offerings that address systems of oppression and power and the teaching of narratives that have been neglected in favor of those dripping with white male privilege.

But some of these same leaders are maintaining significant barriers to the kind of teaching and learning that they say they’re fighting for. That’s because they are complicit in a system that neglects teaching social studies, a subject where students can learn about the oppression that they seek to dismantle. 

In Philadelphia, Superintendent William Hite allowed his passion for justice to overtake him at the CASA-organized protest on June 4. “Stand up against racism, any time we see it in our schools,” he cried.

He mentioned the future possibility of bias training and new “culturally competent” curriculum for schools as ways to stand up against that racism that is embedded in the country’s public education system. 

I could not help but feel frustrated as I listened to Hite, many other education leaders, and government officials as they called for similar “culturally competent” curriculum as a way to fight systems of oppression. None of them made any mention of what I, as a teacher of color, believe to be the most egregious microaggression that results from many of these leaders’ policies: the complete neglect of a well-rounded social studies and civics education.  

As of 2012, only 21 states mandated testing in social studies. To be clear: I am not making a case for expanding high-stakes testing. But the unintended consequence of having high-stakes testing in some subjects but not others is that the untested subject – social studies, in this case – gets tossed aside and deemed unimportant by state education leaders and school leaders alike. 

The Fordham Institute, a Washington, D.C., education think tank, conducted a study that found that as high-stakes testing in math and reading rose with the requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2002, students were spending roughly three times as many hours in reading and math classes by 2011 as they were in science and social studies. 

As a middle school reading and social studies teacher, I see this reflected in my own teaching schedule requirements. I spent a year completing a master’s degree in curriculum planning and teaching social studies in a state that does test social studies. Then I moved home to Philadelphia and found that there were virtually no positions at the elementary or middle levels where a teacher could specifically teach social studies. There were, however, many positions available for reading teachers with the auxiliary responsibility of social studies. 

In my time in the District so far, I have met countless other teachers who – despite extensive study and qualifications in the teaching of social studies and civics – could only find positions in which reading was the primary focus. 

Whenever I have spoken to education leaders and teachers about the fact that my students do, in fact, receive far more support and explicit teaching in reading, the overwhelming response I’ve heard is to “weave social studies into reading class.” To be sure, teaching diverse texts is an important step in normalizing and encouraging conversations about race and power, but it is not enough. 

As any teacher will tell you, just putting something in front of kids does not guarantee that they will truly engage with it or take anything away from it. If we only ask students to analyze a text’s sentence structures instead of allowing them to engage with its greater social and political context, we cannot expect students to know that we are trying to teach tolerance simply by choosing texts that depict it.  

So many undervalued voices have been fighting against systemic racism since long before George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis, and many leaders have proudly declared their support in the last couple of weeks. But ultimately, if we hope to continue this powerful work, we must put as many resources into thoughtful social studies curriculum as we do into reading and math. 

As so many civil rights are being trampled upon, it is imperative that students learn the history of oppression and the history of the social movements powerful enough to fight back against it. How can we expect students to stand up for their constitutional rights if they haven’t ever learned what those rights are? 

Until social studies is a protected learning period for students, until the state decides it must update and develop thoughtful standards for teaching and learning social studies, until the School District of Philadelphia invests more in its Office of Social Studies, and until professional training in teaching social studies is recognized and adequately valued, we will not be able to truly participate in dismantling systems of oppression in schools in Philadelphia. 

Adina Goldstein is a 7th-grade English Language Arts and Social Studies teacher at Vare-Washington Elementary School. She is a proud product of the Philadelphia School District with a master’s degree in education from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. She is in her third year of teaching.

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