Social-Studies Panel Seeking ‘New and Coherent Vision’ for Field

By Robert Rothman — November 25, 1987 6 min read

Dallas--The first large-scale review in more than 50 years of what is taught under the rubric of the social studies got underway this month, as members of the National Commission on Social Studies met here for the first time.

The 44-member commission, named this year after two years of collaborative work by five of the leading organizations in the social sciences, met in conjunction with the annual meeting of the National Council for the Social Studies here.

Citing the education-reform movement as the major impetus for their work, commission members said highly publicized reports this year had focused attention on the field’s shortcomings without offering adequate prescriptions for change.

The new panel, they said, will give social-studies professionals an opportunity over the next three years to develop a “new and coherent vision” of the subject area.

“We will reassess whether the traditional curriculum that has been in place for 50 years is a sufficient framework for the age in which we live,” said Jean C. Craven, coordinator for social studies in the Albuquerque, N.M., school district.

“It is clear that what we’ve got is a curriculum more rooted in tradition than it is in solid rationale,” she said. “What we don’t know is how we get from where we are to where we ought to be.”

The social-studies profession itself needs to conduct such an examination, added Roy Crumley, an 8th-grade teacher from Westlane Middle School in Indianapolis, “rather than have decisions made for us.”

Recent proposals to reform the curriculum by strengthening history instruction are simplistic and possibly counterproductive, commission members suggested.

They said that while history is--and should remain--the “core of the social studies,” instruction in other areas, such as global studies and economics, may be crucial to understanding today’s society.

“We are no longer dealing with the 19th century,” said Donald H. Bragaw, chief of the social-studies bureau of the New York State Department of Education and one of three co-chairmen of the new commission. ''Strictly dealing with history alone may be doing a disservice to students.”

In addition to Mr. Bragaw, Arthur Link, professor of history at Princeton University, and Ernest L. Boyer, president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching will serve as commission co-chairmen.

Members of the commission include U.S. Senator Bill Bradley of New Jersey, U.S. Representative Lindy Boggs of Louisiana, Gov. Martha Layne Collins of Kentucky, Commissioner of Education Harold Raynolds Jr. of Massachusetts, and State Superintendent of Public Instruction Bill Honig of California.

Good Academic ‘Nutrition’

The commission was a collaborative effort of the American Historical Association, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, the National Council for the Social Studies, and the Organization of American Historians.

With additional support from the Foundation for Teaching Economics, the National Geographic Society, and the Rockefeller Foundation, the commission was able to hold this month’s inaugural meeting.

The group’s final organizational planning comes as social-studies instruction, particularly the teaching of history, civics, and geography, is being intensely scrutinized by educators and policymakers.

Chester E. Finn Jr., assistant secretary for educational research and improvement in the U.S. Education Department, told delegates to the ncss conference that “just about everybody who has looked at it says the status quo is unacceptable.”

Mr. Finn was the author, with Diane Ravitch, the Columbia University education historian, of What Do Our 17-Year-Olds Know?, a report whose release has fueled a national debate on the adequacy of current high-school instruction in history.

“Schools should teach more history, geography, and civics,” Mr. Finn said here. “These three subjects ought to constitute the core around which the social-studies curriculum should be constructed.”

The curriculum should not “waste valuable time on less important things,” he said.

Though Mr. Finn declined to specify the less important instructional areas he referred to, he said that the “burden of proof is not on those who want to leave things out, but on those who want to put things in.”

“If you are starting from an overloaded menu,” he said, “you start over again with what people need for good nutrition.”

The assistant secretary praised the curricular framework for history and the social sciences adopted last summer by the California State Board of Education, which strengthens history instruction at every grade level.

‘Global Trends’

While agreeing that history should remain at the core of the social-studies curriculum, however, members of the new commission warned that Mr. Finn and others might be premature in their assessment of the reforms needed.

“As fast as we are raising problems, some people are ready with a solution,” said Ms. Craven of Albuquerque. “We have pushed the door open, and some people have rushed right through.”

Other educators argued that the reasoning behind such proposed reforms is misguided. A “classical” curriculum focused on the history of Western civilization, they said, is too narrow to accommodate the reality that many school systems face: a growing proportion of students from non-Western backgrounds.

In addition, they said, the increasing global interdependence makes such an emphasis outmoded, if not counterproductive.

Jan L. Tucker, professor of education at Florida International University and president of the ncss, warned that such a focus could lead to “the nationalization of knowledge.”

“To go down that path in social-studies education is, at best, inadequate,” he said. “At its worst, it will divert our attention from the underlying global trends that are already influencing our lives in critical ways.”

Students need more than a historical context to understand all institutions in society, said Dan B. Fleming, professor of social-studies education at the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.

If schools placed less emphasis on teaching economics, he said, “the Chamber of Commerce will say, ‘Why are you turning out kids who are illiterate in economics?”’

As it was originally conceived, social studies--the “study of society"--should be defined more broadly, said Mr. Bragaw, the commission co-chairman. But over time, he added, “we have ‘disciplinized’ it.”

In addition to grappling with what topics should be included in the social-studies curriculum, the new commission will also study the ways in which they are taught.

Many teachers at the ncss conference said instruction in the elementary grades was a prime candidate for overhaul.

They said the social-studies cur4riculum used in most elementary schools, one in which students study “expanding environments"--from their families to their communities to their cities, states, country, and world--may be outmoded. Televisions and computers have brought the world into young children’s living rooms, noted Don I. Gray, a commission member and a member of the Alaska Board of Education.

In addition, said Mr. Fleming of Virginia Tech, educators need to reduce the repetition in the current curriculum. Most schools, he noted, tend to repeat survey courses and add greater depth in later grades.

“In Virginia, we study Jamestown four times,” he said. “We don’t need to teach that four times. We should teach it once well.”

A version of this article appeared in the November 25, 1987 edition of Education Week as Social-Studies Panel Seeking ‘New and Coherent Vision’ for Field