Social Studies Losing Out to Reading, Math

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — March 15, 2005 | Corrected: February 22, 2019 8 min read
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Corrected: Mary A. McFarland, a St. Louis-based education consultant, was misidentified in this article. Also, the International Reading Association convened representatives from subject-area groups to debate the use of instructional time; the National Council for the Social Studies took part in the discussion but did not organize it.

Johnny may be learning more about reading and mathematics, but he may have little time to study the discoveries of Columbus, the tenets of the U.S. Constitution, or the social and political causes of the Civil War.

Because of the many demands on the elementary curriculum, educators worry that students will move into the higher grades knowing only the most prominent figures in U.S. history, such as Presidents Washington and Lincoln.

Those time-honored topics—as well as lesser-known events and figures throughout history—are fighting to maintain their place in the curriculum, many experts say, as schools allocate more time and attention to reading and math instruction to meet state and federal goals for student achievement.

“The unintended consequence of No Child Left Behind has been to put history into an even more marginal position,” maintained Theodore K. Rabb, a professor of history at Princeton University and a founder and board member of the National Council for History Education. “It is clear that, with some notable exceptions nationwide, the amount of class time given to history, especially in the first eight grades, has been shrinking almost by the month.”

The 3-year-old No Child Left Behind Act requires annual testing in reading and math in grades 3-8 as a key measure of schools’ progress under the federal law.

In response to what they see as a rapidly growing trend, the Westlake, Ohio-based council and other groups representing teachers of history, government, economics, geography, and other social studies are mobilizing to alert policymakers and the public to their plight and build their case for a renewed focus on those subjects.

Last week alone, a national study and a state task force in Maryland highlighted the urgent challenges facing the field.

Meanwhile, the council, which represents history teachers and scholars, is circulating a statement on what it sees as “A Crisis in History.” Signed by dozens of prominent historians and educators, it calls for the infusion of more history into reading programs and instruction at large. The document is a precursor to the group’s plan for a broader campaign to raise awareness of the problem, Mr. Rabb said.

The National Council for the Social Studies, which represents 26,000 educators, has convened a group of representatives of national organizations for reading, mathematics, and science professionals to debate the use of instructional time. The NCSS’ agenda for that group also includes discussing ways to incorporate more content-area reading, the importance of a well-rounded curriculum, and strategies for getting the message to lawmakers and school administrators.

A social studies task force appointed by the Maryland state schools superintendent is studying the “state of social studies” education statewide, as well as nationally, in order to craft recom- mendations for strengthening the teaching of the subjects there.

“Restoring the Balance Between Academics and Civic Engagement in Public Schools” is available online from the National Council for the Social Studies. ()

And a report on the decline in civic education, released last week, offers an action plan for “restoring the balance” in the curriculum between academics and civic knowledge and engagement.

There is “a disturbing imbalance in the mission of public education,” says the report by the American Youth Policy Forum and the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. “The recent preoccupation of the nation with reshaping academics and raising academic performance,” it says, “has all but overpowered a task of equally vital importance—educating our young people to become engaged members of their communities as citizens.”

Beginning that process at an early age, scholars say, will give students a greater appreciation of the roots of American democracy and better equip them to take a more critical look at the nation’s history and policies later on in their schooling.

Knowledge in a Democracy

Although evidence is mostly anecdotal, history educators say there is a groundswell of concern from teachers and parents around the country. There are also widespread reports of schools pinching valuable minutes from the school day—some from social studies, others from the arts, physical education, foreign language, and other subjects—to make room for more reading activities and math lessons.

“I think the concern is very real,” said Nancy A. McFarland, a St. Louis-based education consultant and author of social studies textbooks. “No one can dispute the importance of literacy and math, but literacy is something that all societies promote, even totalitarian societies. There are just more things that are important [educational mandates] in a democratic society.”

Ms. McFarland is conducting a national survey for the Maryland task force to determine the extent of the erosion in social studies education. Among the respondents so far, a significant number of states reported that the time allocated to social studies instruction in elementary and middle schools has declined since 2002. The full report, as well as another the task force has commissioned to gauge the status of social studies instruction in Maryland school districts, is expected later this year.

History is considered a core subject under the No Child Left Behind law, a reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, and is part of the “well rounded” education intended under the law, according to Michael J. Petrilli, the acting assistant deputy secretary for the U.S. Department of Education’s office of innovation and improvement.

“It is deeply distressing to hear that some schools and school districts out there are not focusing on history,” Mr. Petrilli said. “There’s nothing in the law encouraging schools to cut back on core academic subjects like history.”

The pressure on school districts to show progress under the law, however, has forced schools and teachers to make tough decisions on what to teach and how much time to devote to each subject, some scholars say.

“The desperate response of the schools to test pressure has been to excise history, science, and the arts, and replace them with still more such exercises in reading,” E.D. Hirsch Jr., the founder of the Core Knowledge Foundation, wrote in a paper criticizing the heightened focus many schools have placed on reading in order to raise achievement. “This is a futile strategy, since reading achievement depends on broad knowledge of [these subjects].”

Florida’s K-12 schools chancellor, Jim Warford, issued a memo to school districts last fall, in response to complaints from teachers, reminding them that state law requires the teaching of social studies at all school levels.

Victim of High Stakes?

The situation has been aggravated, in some cases, by state policies that attach high stakes to student achievement in some subjects and not others, observers say. Research shows that teachers tend to spend more time on subjects that are tested—and for which scores are used to rate schools’ and students’ progress—than on those that are not included in state testing programs.

Maryland officials say that since the state eliminated its social studies tests in 2003, primarily because the assessment program did not fulfill federal requirements, a noticeable change in the attention given to the subjects has occurred.

Schools in Illinois had already begun paring time allocated to social studies to make way for as much as 160 minutes daily of reading, when the legislature scrapped the state test in social studies. The move set off a wave of criticism from state education officials and teachers who argued it would lead to further erosion of time spent on that subject area.

In California, social studies instruction has been dwindling for several years in response to state accountability measures that have not required schools to report achievement in social studies for the elementary and middle grades. That trend has been exacerbated somewhat since the passage of the federal education law, said Nancy McTygue, the interim executive director of the California Social Studies Project, a state-financed agency that provides professional development and curriculum support for the state’s low-performing districts and schools.

The problem is particularly evident in low-performing schools or those with large proportions of disadvantaged students, Ms. McTygue said.

“Low-performing schools have dropped history,” she said, “choosing instead to have a three-hour block to teach a scripted reading program, in addition to two hours of math and required [physical education] classes. If a student goes to a low-performing elementary school and then a low-performing middle school, they won’t have history until they’re 15 or 16, and all they’ll have is 20th-century history.”

Some districts in California have also been coaxing struggling high school students to take additional reading and math courses, forcing many to postpone required history courses until sophomore or junior year. (“Troubled High School Narrows Courses,” June 16, 2004.)

‘Start From Scratch’

Squeezing social studies in the elementary grades is likely to leave many students unprepared for the history courses they will encounter in middle and high school, and to meet graduation requirements in the subject, according to Jesus Garcia, the president of the National Council for the Social Studies, which is based in Silver Spring, Md.

“We’re quite concerned that if students do not get the basic skills in social studies in grades K-6, the result will be students entering high school with very little background information in any of the social studies subjects,” said Mr. Garcia, a professor of social studies education at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

“That makes the job of the middle school teacher and high school teacher extremely difficult,” he said, “because they will have to start from scratch.”

A version of this article appeared in the March 16, 2005 edition of Education Week as Social Studies Losing Out to Reading, Math


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