Social-Studies Panel Shuns Call for Radical Changes

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Radical changes in the social-studies curriculum are not needed, one of the most extensive reviews of the field in decades has concluded.

The report by the curriculum task force of the National Commission on Social Studies in Schools, scheduled to be released in November, appears to differ sharply from more urgent calls for reform made by other recent reports on the subject.

The Bradley Commission on History in Schools, for example, proposed boosting instruction in history, in light of evidence of huge gaps in students' knowledge of basic facts in that subject.

But the task force, while urging that history and geography remain the "matrix or framework for social studies," also stresses that concepts from political science, economics, and other social sciences must continue to be integrated throughout all social-studies classes in all grades.

The new report also contrasts with the stand taken by former Secretary of Education William J. Bennett, who argued that schools should place primary emphasis on the history of Western civilization. The panel recommends that study of other major civilizations and societies receive "attention at least equal to the study of the history, geography, government, economics, and society of the United States."

Indeed, one of the task force's more controversial positions recommends against a separate high-school course on American history. Instead, the panel proposes a three-year course on world history that would integrate teaching about the United States within "the general story of humanity."

The commission's proposals were aimed, according to a draft version of its report, at helping an increasingly diverse student body prepare for an ever-more interdependent world.

"If teachers and administrators succeed in implementing the recommendations we have made," it says, "students will emerge in the 21st century prepared to live well and wisely in a changing world, ready to play their part as citizens of our country, as members of the local community and as sharers in the human adventure on earth."

The national commission, a 44-member panel of teachers, scholars, and policymakers, was formed in 1986 by 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.

Funded by grants from the Rockefeller Foundation, the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the National Geographic Society, and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the panel was charged with conducting the most thorough review of the content of the social studies since the 1930's. (See Education Week, Nov. 25, 1987.)

As part of its efforts, the commission named a curriculum task force--chaired by William H. McNeill, professor of history emeritus at the University of Chicago, and Jean C. Craven, social-studies coordinator for the Albuquerque, N.M., school district--to develop a framework for a course of study for the field.

After analyzing research and surveying more than 850 teachers and curriculum supervisors, the panel concluded that "radical curriculum change is not needed in the schools."

But the panel also argues that demographic changes among students and new knowledge in the social sciences make it necessary for schools to "adapt and expand" the content and instruction of social studies.

Like previous reform documents--such as the widely heralded California history/social-science curriculum framework and the Bradley Commission's report--the panel calls for strengthening the content taught in the early grades; reducing repetition; enhancing the use of original-source materials; and encouraging teachers to teach selected topics in depth, rather than attempt to "cover" the entire sweep of human history.

It differs from those earlier reports, however, in its emphasis on the social sciences, in addition to history and geography, and in its call for the study of non-Western societies.

In making recommendations for curricula, the panel proposes that, in grades K-3, schools condense the current "expanding environment" approach--in which students progress from the study of self to the study of the family, the community, the city, the nation, and the world--in order to introduce more advanced topics more quickly.

Social studies in the early grades can lay a foundation for more advanced study, the report maintains, through the use of stories about heroes and common people; maps, globes, and time-lines; and projects surrounding holidays.

In grades 4-6, the panel proposes, schools should teach a full year each of U.S. history, world history, and geography. It suggests that such instruction include an introduction to the basic documents of American government and to our "civic tradition"; an understanding of how civilizations' belief systems contributed to laws, religions, and economics that have shaped the modern world; and an overview of the importance of climate and patterns of physical geography on political boundaries.

The task force also recommends courses on the local community and on the nation in grades 7 and 8. By shifting instruction in local history from its traditional place in elementary school to the middle grades, educators can "break down the barriers between school and the larger world" by encouraging the study of local architecture and the use of oral histories, the report states.

The proposed three-year world-history curriculum in grades 9-11 "allows students to connect the national past with its larger international setting," the task force concludes.

Finally, the panel proposes that 12th-grade social studies seek to "arouse youthful idealism" and stress teenagers' civic duty by including a one-semester course on American government and economics; a course in anthropology, sociology, and psychology; or community service.

Vol. 09, Issue 01

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