Education Letter to the Editor


February 12, 2003 20 min read
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Turf War?: History vs. Social Studies

Poor Math Texts Are the Problem

Regarding your recent article “Math Divisions Have Chance of Lessening,” (Jan. 22, 2003): The real problem in math is not the two camps of thought, but the inadequate textbooks and unyielding state mandates. The past crop of mathematics texts was abominably poor, in that the focus was more on memorization than learning. Those books were like poorly organized supermarkets; most of the material was there, but it was difficult to find and use properly.

The new texts, which have come out of university research at the cost of millions of taxpayer dollars, are perhaps incrementally better. But they have tried to introduce scientific thought that can at best be described as bad science. With billions of dollars at stake, the universities and textbook publishers are not readily going to admit to the inadequacy of their new texts.

States and school management organizations tend to mandate that mathematics be taught on a timetable where it is irrelevant that you understand the supporting material before moving on to the next topic. This results in children falling further behind and being intellectually demoralized.

Having worked with at-risk students, gifted children, and classes from 1st through 5th grade, as well as having tutored high school students in both inner-city and rural schools, I have seen a broad panorama of school life. And although I attended the best of high schools and universities, my own knowledge and understanding of math until several years ago was painfully lacking.

In questioning others—those with doctorates in the sciences as well as teachers of in-service courses—I have found that there are a lot of educated people who cannot explain how or why they do simple math operations, other than to say that it is the way they were taught. This leads me to question the credentials of those who are setting the standards—whatever camp they belong to.

Irvin M. Miller
Poughkeepsie, N.Y.

Our Challenge Is To ‘Nurture Courage’

To the Editor:

I’ve been thinking about this phrase from Hayes Mizell’s recent Commentary (“Not for the Timid,” Jan. 22, 2003): “Improving the results schools achieve is not a task for the timid.” My dictionary defines timid as “wanting boldness and courage,” two qualities that seem to be in short supply in institutional settings (not to mention life in general). A challenge for all of us, it seems to me, is to help school leaders find those qualities in themselves and sustain them across the many months and years of effort required to bring about significant changes in teaching and learning.

It takes boldness and courage, for instance, to stand for the learning of all students in the face of vehement opposition from those who advocate for a privileged status for some students. It takes boldness and courage to insist in the face of organizational inertia that school improvement plans be sufficiently powerful to produce quality teaching in all classrooms and demonstrable improvements in student learning. The list could go on and on.

In the face of that reality, I can see why policymakers gravitate to comparatively easy and simple fixes, such as high-stakes testing and deregulating the education marketplace. Unfortunately, these “remedies” too often lead to the timidity that Mr. Mizell warns us against. That’s why it is critically important that we nurture boldness and courage throughout our educational system, and that we do so with a sense of urgency.

Dennis Sparks
Executive Director
National Staff Development Council
Ann Arbor, Mich.

Do We Need Another Study?

To the Editor:

According to your article “Leaders in Business and Education Take Up Improvement of Teaching,” (Jan. 22, 2003), Louis V. Gerstner Jr., the former head of IBM, has created a new Teaching Commission to study how to raise teacher quality. Ho-hum.

The last thing we need is another study of teaching. In the last decade, we have had many commissions study how to improve the profession. They all produced laundry lists of recommendations that boil down to making teacher training more relevant, improving teacher compensation, and treating teachers as professionals. Mr. Gerstner’s commission will arrive at a similar conclusion.

We know how to improve the profession. Unfortunately, policymakers lack the will to do what is necessary. We need action, not another study.

Carl O. Olson
Retired School Administrator
Sarasota, Fla.

Certification Board Decries ASCD Ad

To the Editor:

In your Jan. 22, 2003, issue, the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development placed as a paid advertisement an essay by its executive director, Gene R. Carter, that incorrectly and misleadingly characterizes actions by the American Board for Certification of Teacher Excellence. It states that the board intends to launch a teacher-certification program in spring 2003 that is a “quick and easy” solution, bent on “devaluing professional knowledge” and rushing teachers into the classroom whose experience is “harmful to the students they teach.”

In actuality, the American Board has been diligent in its development of a comprehensive teacher- certification program, regularly consulting with expert thinkers such as Bill Sanders and Tom Kane. The resulting teacher certification places a primary focus on quality, testing both subject-area mastery and professional knowledge. It also includes a preservice component, in full compliance with the “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001 regulations, ensuring that teachers are classroom-ready with the direct content knowledge necessary to impact student academic achievement.

Unlike the flawed research cited by the ASCD, credible studies by Dan D. Goldhaber and Dominic Brewer have shown that teachers certified in their subject areas outperform teachers without subject-matter preparation, as measured by student performance. Given that this critical area is largely ignored in traditional teacher-certification programs that are too often committed to the study of pedagogy, the American Board needs to be lauded, not attacked, for developing viable alternatives that address all aspects of teacher preparation, in a format that encourages the entry of new teachers into the profession, particularly in high-need communities.

It is for this reason that we are most disappointed in the comments made by the ASCD in its ad. The American Board and its partners are willing and active participants in the dialogue about new alternatives and the need to establish policies that support both traditional and alternative pathways to the classroom. We have never positioned the American Board as a one-size-fits-all solution, and we welcome and expect the opportunity to engage in a discussion about new research and alternatives. The absence of this discussion, and categorical comments that offer nothing but the status quo, are the true “disservice to students.”

Lisa Graham Keegan
Chief Executive Officer
Education Leaders Council
Washington, D.C.

Kathleen Madigan
American Board for Certification of Teacher Excellence
Washington, D.C.

Induction Programs Are Not Mentoring

To the Editor:

Your report Quality Counts 2003: “If I Can’t Learn From You” is to be commended for an excellent article detailing the shameful paucity of highly qualified teachers serving high-poverty, high-minority, and low-achieving students (“The Great Divide,”Quality Counts 2003, Jan. 9, 2003). I could not agree more. But for administrators and policymakers seeking to solve the problem—and a solution does exist—you should clarify a misconception often made by educators and education writers.

The terms “induction” and “mentoring” are not synonymous. Induction is a process used by districts to train, support, and retain new teachers. This process is highly organized, structured, and involves many people, or trainers. It typically runs for a sustained period of from two to five years.

Mentoring, on the other hand, involves a person, a mentor, and is one component of the induction process. So it is misleading when you write, “Other studies suggest that mentoring or induction programs can increase teacher-retention rates and help rookies become more effective. But such programs often fail to deliver. A survey of new teachers in New Jersey found that 74 percent had mentors, yet only 17 percent had been observed by their mentors.”

Yes, we know from research (a major ERIC Digest report by Sharon Feiman-Nemser, for example) that mentoring alone has never proven itself. But to say that “such programs often fail to deliver” is an incorrect indictment of induction unless there is differentiation of what the two words denote.

Further on in the article is this: “Sixteen states require and finance induction programs to support all beginning teachers in the classroom, but only five of them require more than one year of mentoring for novices.” Again, this seems to erroneously imply that mentoring is the only thing happening during the induction process.

Induction programs have more than mentors. And readers interested in studying the various components that contribute to a successful, sustained, multiyear induction process can find a wealth of information online at www.NewTeacher.com.

Harry K. Wong
Saratoga, Calif.

On Teacher Quality: Two States’ Stories

To the Editor:

I have been a teacher in Pennsylvania for 17 years, and I believe that the teaching requirements in our state are rigorous when compared with those of other states. So I was extremely upset when I heard the local news report on your rankings of state education in Quality Counts 2003 (Special Edition, Jan. 9, 2003.)

In your report, Pennsylvania got a D- plus for its efforts to improve teacher quality. Could you please tell me if there is another state that requires its teachers to accrue 24 college credit hours in three years beyond their degree for permanent certification, 180 hours of ongoing educational instruction every five years, and, in addition, requires that all teachers be tested every five years (regardless of experience or degrees)? What teaching qualifications does your report believe merit a grade of A?

Sharon Simpson
Mechanicsburg, Pa.

To the Editor:

Education Week‘s excellent Quality Counts 2003 report gives Michigan a D- plus for its performance in improving teacher quality.

Research shows that excellent teachers are the most powerful contributors to achievement gains. No other education reform investment pays the same dividends, particularly in helping lift the achievement of poor, at-risk, and minority students.

Despite being the home of some of the biggest and best-rated education schools, churning out large numbers of teachers, Michigan has not focused on improving teaching skills and getting excellent teachers into the most needy districts and classrooms.

As bipartisan co-chairs of the Ensuring Excellent Educators task force, we enlisted the most creative and innovative minds in Michigan last year and laid out a blueprint to ensure teacher quality in every school district in Michigan. We know rhetoric alone, including ours, has never educated a child. We intend to use our plan with your frank analysis as a wake-up call to Michigan leaders to build a new system for our state—one that attracts, nurtures, supports, and rewards excellent teachers.

Eileen Weiser
John Austin
Michigan State Board of Education
Lansing, Mich.

Essay Offers Us No Alternative to Tests

To the Editor:

While I share Peter W. Cookson Jr.'s distaste for excessive standardized testing (“Standardization and Its Unseen Ironies,” Commentary, Jan. 22, 2003), I fail to see that he offers a real alternative. His essay is full of stirring phrases, but lacks substance. He suggests no actual ways in which his vision might be pursued. His only concrete proposal seems to be the abolition of testing. It is difficult to see how that would improve our schools.

There is, moreover, a significant positive correlation between social standing and real intellectual achievement. That fact may be regrettable, but it is not something that the schools can fix. For Mr. Cookson to suggest the contrary seems disingenuous at best.

Dennis Vail
Beaumont, Texas

Turf War?

I was disappointed with your front-page article “History Invading Social Studies’ Turf in Schools” (Jan. 22, 2003). Much of its content was totally bogus, as the vast majority of social-studies content taught in schools is history. The article never questions the assumption that social studies and history are at odds with one another. Why did you not examine any research about what is taught in social studies, or look at the curriculum mandates of the states, which actually spell out in some detail what is taught?

Including comments from Ronald W. Evans and David Warren Saxe provided a little balance but, in my humble opinion, the article, overall, was simply rhetoric against social studies and the National Council for the Social Studies. For example, you rehashed a highly critical article in The Weekly Standard as though it were fact. Where is the evidence that the NCSS is “promoting a current-events approach”? Instead of looking at what the NCSS has actually done, you repeat without checking the evidence complaints made by others.

And nowhere in your article were social studies teachers allowed to explain the reasons they integrate historical knowledge with content from political science, economics, and geography: to prepare young people to understand their communities, their nation, and the world, so that they can make informed decisions as citizens in a democracy.

Merry Merryfield
Columbus, Ohio

To the Editor:

Can history and social studies lie peacefully in the same bed? Yes. But do they today? No. “To be ignorant of what happened before you were born is to remain always a child,” Cicero said some 2,100 years ago. My fear is that our children will never grow up.

I am 58 years old, and when I was in school, American history was a required subject. Because of that, I gained background and context that enable me to evaluate current events. My children, ages 31, 29, and 28, do not have this grounding. This is just one of the ways that the public school system failed them.

My daughter who is 31, a school librarian and the holder of a master’s degree, recently confessed to me that she really doesn’t know how our government works. She is not alone. I am embarrassed, and her schoolteachers should be embarrassed as well. But apparently they are not even aware of the problem.

Joseph Cascarelli
ROI Management Corp.
Westcliffe, Colo.

To the Editor:

I was happy to see the article on the (apparent) triumph of history over “social studies” in school curricula. The struggle that has led us to this point has been long and difficult, but it appears that those of us who recognize the importance of a strong framework of historical knowledge have convinced many policymakers.

I have been peripherally involved in this struggle for many years. I remember a principal in the 1970s complaining that “some social studies teachers are still teaching history.” (I was an English teacher.) In 1981, Robert R. Spillane and I published an article in the Phi Delta Kappan on the value of history rather than social studies. The National Council for History Education (which your article credits) has done a wonderful job of connecting academic historians and schoolteachers on this issue. They probably deserve the most credit in this struggle.

“Social studies” is essentially a nondiscipline that encourages a much less intellectually rigorous approach to making curricular decisions than would an organization based on academic disciplines. Since it lacks inherent structure and scholarly integrity, social studies is infinitely malleable to meet political requirements. While actual scholarly disciplines such as history are, of course, rife with controversy, they are unlike social studies in subjecting truth claims to rigorous review, challenge, and revision based on documentary and other evidential criteria; this is what students learn when they are taught history well. The key is not unity on specific truth claims, but an epistemological system for keeping the scholars honest.

Instead of being a discipline, social studies is a convenient amalgam invented by K-12 educators and professors of education that has struggled for many years with no success to define itself as a discipline. In 1992, after about 80 years of existence, the National Council for the Social Studies developed a definition of its eponymous “discipline,” a definition that has no coherent epistemological structure.

Lacking intellectual and disciplinary rigor, curricula based on such a “discipline” can be easily used for propaganda (for example, the notion that everything Western is better than anything from other cultures) without worrying about scholarship in any academic field. In fact, social studies lends itself to accepting almost anything into its curriculum with little challenge on intellectual grounds, such as historical accuracy.

The changes of attitude toward history that you chronicle are the result of recognition by educators at all levels that strong history instruction is important. It is not a victory by either left or right, but a victory of reason and intelligence.

Paul Regnier
Washington, D.C.

To the Editor:

As a social studies/history teacher of 27 years, and a member of the National Council for the Social Studies and the National Council for History Education, I would like to comment on what I feel is an all-too-common misconception in your article “History Invading Social Studies’ Turf in Schools.”

The misconception, as I see it, is that history and social studies are treated as separate fields of study in competition with one another. History, however, is a discipline that falls within the general curricular area of social studies, just as astronomy is a discipline that falls within the general curricular area of science. Of course, the curriculum in the elementary grades includes a section of the day called “social studies” (just as it includes a section of the day called “science”), but the social studies curriculum in the middle and high school expands to include courses in the disciplines.

I teach in a middle school. The social studies component of our curriculum is two years of world history (grades 6 and 7) and one year of American history (grade 8). In our high school, the social studies component of the curriculum includes such courses as U.S. history, modern world history, economics, government, law, sociology, Middle Eastern history, and many of the Advanced Placement social studies offerings. As in most schools, there are also interdisciplinary course offerings, such as global issues.

Social studies is an umbrella term denoting that portion of a school’s curriculum that contains such related disciplines as history, economics, civics, and geography. It is a general curricular area, not a discipline; and history is not in competition with it any more than algebra (a discipline) is in competition with the general curricular area of mathematics.

Mike Yell
Hudson Middle School
Hudson, Wis.

To the Editor:

I was puzzled by your article positing a “turf war” between social studies and history—and taking a clear slant against the National Council for the Social Studies. I am a teacher-educator and a former history teacher (with an M.A. in U.S. history), as well as a member of the NCSS.

I was puzzled first, because history is very much a part of the social studies. Indeed, the NCSS has long worked with the subject-matter organizations, which represent the disciplines that make up social studies. We have subject-rich strands at our annual meeting, for example, that are planned with the help of such organizations as the National Center for History Education. The NCSS is an advocate of the need for teachers to have a strong content base. Many of us are dismayed when it appears that school districts hire less qualified people to teach social studies simply because they can and will coach.

The purpose of social studies is the preparation of effective citizens. There is evidence from such sources as test findings (the National Assessment of Educational Progress, for example), research in the field, and surveys and polls that much work remains to be done in helping young people understand our founding documents, the functioning of our government, and the basic principles underlying it. Strong content knowledge in history and the social sciences is crucial to the education of effective citizens.

The argument you describe is one engaged in by a few academics and policy advocates. But it barely reflects what actually happens in schools. I, too, am dismayed by young people’s lack of knowledge of history (and the social sciences); but I attribute the problem to a number of factors, including the pressure teachers feel to “cover the facts” and the lack of time to teach for real understanding.

Susan Adler
University of Missouri-Kansas City
Kansas City, Mo.

To the Editor:

It is not often that Education Week includes an article related to any of the disciplines incorporated in social studies, so it is particularly sad that “History Invading Social Studies’ Turf in Schools” was so blatantly negative and based on so little research. Whether one chooses to be labeled a social studies educator or a history/geography/economics/civics educator, a reader in any of these categories would be appalled by the lack of evidence used to substantiate the assertions made.

I have been a classroom teacher, a supervisor in urban and suburban districts, a state specialist in social studies, and a teacher of social studies methods as part of a university’s adjunct teaching staff. At no time have I ever seen invective like that of the historian Theodore K. Rabb, who insists in your article that social studies proponents “have become about process, and we’re about content.” What a false dichotomy!

Multiple sources of research indicate that emphasis on activities that engage students in inquiry and problem-solving about significant human issues is much more desirable than memorization of isolated facts from textbooks. Good instruction—in any content and at any grade level— is about both content and process.

Has anyone at Education Week asked why states have standards in social studies disciplines other than history—standards that, incidentally, have been reviewed by one of the critics you quote, David Warren Saxe, at the behest of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation? One obvious answer is that history cannot be studied in isolation. Every event occurs in a specific location, with physical and human dimensions that affect what occurs.

Peggy Altoff
Social Studies Supervisor
Colorado Springs, Colo.

To the Editor:

Your article about the imagined current war between those teaching “history” and those teaching “social studies” seems narrow in knowledge and broad in opinion. I know of no historical event that was not molded by geographical, economic, and social factors. To teach history in isolation from those other disciplines would be similar to teaching letters or words without also teaching that they are used to communicate ideas, feelings, and, most definitely, opinions.

Much of the low achievement in students and lack of informed and knowledgeable citizens in history, geography, and economics can be traced back to the way school systems treat all these disciplines collectively. Often, those teachers hired to teach these disciplines are hired first for their abilities to coach some athletic team, and not for their knowledge and abilities in teaching the given discipline. Have you visited any classrooms to witness firsthand how any of these subjects are taught?

Beyond that, the hue and cry for higher standardized-test scores in reading and mathematics has shifted all other disciplines to the back burner for now. That is not likely to change in the immediate future, and all other content areas will continue to receive less attention because of it.

Social studies attempts to produce students who not only know about historical events, but also understand why they happened, the factors influencing them, and why they turned out the way they did. History alone cannot accomplish that, any more than any of the other content areas can accomplish it alone.

History is not invading social studies’ turf. It has always been there as a vital part of a complete education. The deficiencies in history, as well as in all other disciplines, are not due to some intentional neglect or secret war between proponents and opponents. Rather, they are due to the same reasons we are lagging behind much of the rest of the world in reading, mathematics, and science. Turf war? Let’s get real.

Art Stiles
Lead Teacher Consultant
Georgia Geographic Alliance
Stockbridge, Ga.


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