Published Online:

Discord Over Social Studies Vexes Publishers

Article Tools
  • PrintPrinter-Friendly
  • EmailEmail Article
  • ReprintReprints
  • CommentsComments

ARLINGTON, VA--Conflicting signals from educators could stymie publishers' efforts to meet demands for better social-studies textbooks, publishing executives warned here last week.

"There are core issues to be resolved'' about the scope and content of the social-studies curriculum, said Michael E. Melody, president of the school division of the Macmillan Publishing Company. "There is no clear consensus, it seems to me.''

Without such agreement, Mr. Melody added, selling new textbooks becomes "a crapshoot.''

"You do all the things that make up market research, put your product out to all the constituent groups, and hope that's what they are looking for,'' he said.

Participants in a conference here noted the divergence of approaches in recent initiatives to reform the teaching of history and related subjects.

Experts in the field are divided, they said, over whether to follow the lead of California--which recently adopted a social-studies framework that strongly emphasizes history--or to heed the calls of some reformers for more emphasis on new areas, such as global studies and social change.

Moreover, they said, educators sharply disagree over whether the curriculum should try to touch on all the topics a well-educated American should know, or cover fewer topics in greater depth.

The National Commission on Social Studies in the Schools, a 44-member panel that began last fall to take the first large-scale look in more than 50 years at what should be taught under the social-studies rubric, is attempting to reach agreement on those issues. (See Education Week, Nov. 25, 1987.)

But the panel's work is not expected to be complete until 1990 or 1991, too late for publishers who need to make decisions now about texts that will be released at that time, said Barbara Flynn, editorial vice president for social studies at Scott Foresman & Company.

"That's three years from now,'' Ms. Flynn said. "That's not soon enough.''

'Expanding Environments'

The meeting was called by the school division of the Association of American Publishers and the National Council for the Social Studies to examine the implications for instructional materials of proposed reforms in the field.

Several reformers, citing students' poor performance on the first national assessment of American history, have argued for a stronger emphasis on that subject.

"Something is wrong with the way history is being taught in the curriculum,'' said Charlotte Crabtree, professor of education at the University of California at Los Angeles and a principal author of California's new framework.

That framework differs from many state guidelines, she said, by strengthening the history content in the early grades, adding a year of world history, and presenting secondary-school history in a chronological fashion, rather than by themes.

Ms. Crabtree will head a new UCLA-based center on the teaching of history, funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities, that is intended to help restore the field to the "center of the curriculum.''

Publishers and researchers said it was unclear whether other states will follow California's lead.

Most states cling to the "expanding environments'' model for instruction in grades K-3, despite critics who consider it "trivial and vacuous,'' noted James E. Akenson, professor of curriculum and instruction at Tennessee Technological University.

Under that model, students learn first about themselves and their families, then about the community, the region, the nation, and the world.

In addition, curricula in some states reflect the view that social studies ought to encompass subjects such as global studies, as well as history, said Donald H. Bragaw, chief of the social-studies bureau of the New York Department of Education.

"We no longer live in the 19th century,'' he said in arguing for an approach that is not limited to history. "We try to give kids some sense of what the future is about.''

Social-studies teachers must also educate students about demographic changes in the United States, such as the fact that the "traditional'' family now represents only 6 percent of American households, added Harold L. Hodgkinson, senior fellow at the Institute for Educational Leadership.

"If we present the intact family as the norm, we commit several different kinds of hara-kiri at the same time,'' he said.

Shallow or Deep?

In addition to debating which subjects should be included in the social-studies curriculum, reformers are also debating which specific topics should be covered.

E.D. Hirsch Jr., author of Cultural Literacy: What Every American Should Know, argued that the curriculum should be as inclusive as possible.

"Students need to know about lots of things,'' he said, adding that "broad, shallow knowledge is the best route to deep knowledge.''

But such a curriculum would be impossible to teach, and would be unlikely to improve students' knowledge, said Fred Newmann, professor of curriculum and instruction at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

Rather than try to impart broad but shallow knowledge, he said, teachers should "go for depth.''

That is exactly the kind of disagreement, publishers responded, that places them in a bind.

Publishers are criticized for including too many topics in their textbooks, said Ms. Flynn of Scott Foresman. But, she said, textbook-adoption panels and teachers are unlikely to buy books that fail to include topics they consider important.

"Everybody says, 'more depth,''' she said. "The question is, what to leave out.''

Web Only

You must be logged in to leave a comment. Login | Register
Ground Rules for Posting
We encourage lively debate, but please be respectful of others. Profanity and personal attacks are prohibited. By commenting, you are agreeing to abide by our user agreement.
All comments are public.

Back to Top Back to Top

Most Popular Stories

Viewed

Emailed

Recommended

Commented