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Social-Studies Council Issues Standards For K-12 Curriculum

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Weaving together geography, civics, economics, philosophy, psychology, religion, and thousands of years of human experience, the National Council for the Social Studies was set to release this week its model standards from which educators can build a K-12 social-studies curriculum.

The project is one of a dozen undertaken in the past few years to upgrade the quality of education in the United States. It is the first of four standards projects that fall under the social-studies rubric scheduled to be issued this fall.

Geography, history, and civics are scheduled to be released in the next two months.

Although earlier drafts of these discipline-based standards have been lauded for their substance, reviewers have questioned whether teachers will be willing or able to wade through the hundreds of pages of individual documents.

In response, the groups drafting them are expected to issue slimmer, yet still sizable, final editions.

N.C.S.S. leaders said they sought with the social-studies standards to provide a unifying framework that preserves the integrity of the discrete disciplines.

"We took the tack that if this whole movement was going to have any impact on the schools, it had to be presented in a way that was logical, well organized, and meaningful to a K-12 program," said Michael Hartoonian, the president-elect of the council and a member of the task force that wrote the standards.

"If you look at our standards, you will find the individual disciplines there," Mr. Hartoonian said.

For example, he said, geography content standards can be found in the social-studies curriculum standard titled "people, places, and environments."

"I don't like to think of this as an alternative; I like to think of it as a way for [educators] to find a pathway into all those other standards," Mr. Hartoonian continued.

10 Thematic Strands

The social-studies standards--in the works since 1992--have involved the efforts of thousands of academics, teachers, and administrators nationwide.

Unlike the other three projects slated for release this fall, each of which received federal funding, the social-studies council has wholly financed development of its standards.

Also unlike the other projects, which have drafted more specific content standards, the N.C.S.S. has produced curriculum standards.

Built on 10 core themes, they span the social sciences and include elements of the physical sciences.

The themes are:

  • Culture;
  • Time, continuity, and change;
  • People, places, and environments;
  • Individual development and identity;
  • Individuals, groups, and institutions;
  • Power, authority, and governance;
  • Production, distribution, and consumption;
  • Science, technology, and society;
  • Global connections; and
  • Civic ideals and practices.

Each theme embodies one standard. The curriculum standard under "culture," for instance, is: "Social-studies programs should include experiences that provide for the study of culture and cultural diversity. ... "

Performance expectations--or what students should be able to do--are then broken down into the early grades, the middle grades, and high school.

These are designed to build on what students have learned in earlier years.

In the "production, distribution, and consumption" standard, students in the early grades should be able to "describe the relationship of price to supply and demand."

By the middle grades, the students are expected to "compare basic economic systems according to who determines what is produced, distributed, and consumed."

High school students should be able to "apply economic concepts and reasoning when evaluating historical and contemporary social developments and issues."

Each of the standards also includes several examples of related classroom activities for each grade level, as well as suggested evaluation ideas.

Drawn from the experiences of actual teachers, the activities are written in vignette style using pseudonyms for the teachers.

Some of the suggested activities tackle thorny topics such as prayer in school and homosexuals in the U.S. military.

Some also employ instructional methods that ask students to write in journals or take actions, after researching issues, to influence policymaking.

Both the topics and the methodology could engender controversy in some quarters, if experience in recent years is a guide. Some of the most controversial issues in education--from the use of cooperative-learning techniques and journal-writing to the teaching of morals or values--come under the social-studies umbrella.

"We certainly did not set out to be controversial," said Mr. Hartoonian, acknowledging that community acceptance will vary.

"What we were trying to do is create a continuum, a spectrum, some pedagogy, to reflect what research was telling us."

The approach also satisfies the social-studies council's goal in developing standards, as noted in its executive summary:

"The United States and its democratic system of government are constantly evolving," says the 178-page document. "No one can predict with certainty what may be needed from its citizens to preserve and protect it 50 years from now."

"For social studies to perform its mission of promoting civic competence," the summary continues, "students must learn not only a body of knowledge but how to think and how to be flexible in using many resources to resolve civic issues."

"These national curriculum standards for social studies represent educators' best thinking about what is needed to educate future citizens to meet that challenge," it concludes.

Workshops Planned

Next month, the N.C.S.S. will begin holding a series of workshops around the country to introduce educators to the standards.

"Our first priority is to get the word out," said Martharose Laffey, the council's executive director.

Copies of "Expectations of Excellence: Curriculum Standards for Social Studies" are available for $15 each, or $12.75 for N.C.S.S. members, plus $2.50 for shipping and handling, from Whitehurst & Clark, 100 Newfield Ave., Raritan Center, Edison, N.J. 08837. For bulk orders, call (800) 683-0812.

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