Social Studies

Concentration on Reading, Math Troubles Social Studies Educators

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — February 20, 2002 4 min read
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History and civics teachers saw a glimmer of promise arising from the horrific events of Sept. 11. As much of the nation rallied around the flag, politicians, pundits, and the public became engaged in perhaps the most substantive discussions in decades of the importance of social studies education and the role of schools in instilling democratic ideals and values.

Some educators and organizations, however, now say their hopes that schools would intensify their focus on the subjects are likely to be disappointed. Several states, they note, recently unveiled school improvement plans that omit social studies from accountability testing. Consequently, they fear that the subject area may get less attention, not more.

The National Council for the Social Studies is weighing in. Concerned that schools under pressure to raise test scores in reading and mathematics will downplay other subjects, the NCSS’ board members are quickly crafting a national strategy to ensure their discipline’s place as a linchpin in the curriculum.

Already, social studies teachers say they see it happening. Many districts have prescribed as much as three hours a day for reading in an effort to reach the goal of having all children reading proficiently by the end of 3rd grade, as a new federal law will now require.

State, Federal Policy

Some state accountability programs, like one being considered in Michigan, hitch high stakes to student test results in reading and math in the early grades, leaving history and social studies out of the calculation until at least middle school. Only last week, teachers in Alabama received notice that the state’s new accountability system will not test social studies until 10th grade.

Moreover, testing requirements in the recent reauthorization of the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act will cover reading, math, and eventually science, but not social studies.

The attacks on the United States on Sept. 11 “drove home the idea that we need to focus on making better citizens,” said Ken Mareski, a high school history teacher in St. Clair, Mich. “The irony is that we are spending billions of dollars in Afghanistan daily to bring the core democratic values to that country,” he said, “but we’re not spending money on teaching our own children about them.”

In Michigan, the state board of education gave preliminary approval last week to Education YES!: A Yardstick for Excellent Schools. The accountability system would tie accreditation for elementary schools to improved reading and math achievement, as well as family involvement, professional-development opportunities for teachers, and other indicators.

Although 5th graders would still take a state social studies test each year, the results would not count toward a school’s quality rating. Students’ performance on state science and history tests would count in middle and high school.

“If kids can’t read, they can’t read social studies textbooks, and they can’t read science textbooks,” said William Bushaw, the chief academic officer for the Michigan education department and the author of the accountability plan. “In those early grades, we’re devoting ourselves to literacy.”

Mr. Bushaw contends that most elementary teachers understand the importance of teaching social studies and will continue to do so whether they are included in accountability measures or not.

Feeling the Pressure

Some social studies experts disagree.

“What’s easiest to cut are those programs that do not have a link to accountability,” said Gayle Thieman, who oversees the Fund for the Advancement of Social Studies Education. Without pressure to improve social studies instruction, Ms. Thieman said, districts are likely to spend much of their professional-development and instructional-materials budgets elsewhere.

Her concerns are backed by research suggesting that teachers adjust the balance of their instruction in favor of subjects that are tested, particularly if educators are held accountable for results.

“When teachers and administrators are feeling the pressure from a testing system that emphasizes reading and math, the day will be restructured so there is less time available for other subjects,” said Brian M. Stecher, a senior social scientist with the RAND Corp., an independent research organization based in Santa Monica, Calif.

To prevent that from happening, the NCSS is trying to recruit its members to launch letter-writing campaigns in Alabama and Michigan, as well as in New Jersey, where officials have proposed delaying state social studies tests until revised academic standards are complete.

After a decade of setting social studies standards and stressing the need for teaching to those standards, states sometimes send mixed messages to teachers, Mr. Stecher said.

“On the one hand, lots of states have adopted standards for social studies, they’ve put in a lot of resources to establish statewide curricula, they’ve selected textbooks that address the standards, and they stress their belief in the value of the subject,” he said. “But then they are excluded from the accountability system, signaling that they are not as important as other subjects.”

Those who have followed the standards movement in Michigan over the past decade say Education YES! stops it in its tracks.

“Just as we’re getting to the point where students learning to standards since 1st grade will be tested, now we’re telling them it doesn’t count,” said Leo Radakovich, a history teacher at East Grand Rapids High School.

Teachers intent on preserving social studies lessons often incorporate them into reading and math, said the vice president of the NCSS, Denee Mattioli.

But “you can’t learn the [essentials of history and civics] as vocabulary words and reading lessons,” she said. “We need to go beyond reading skills to the whole reason universal education was created to begin with, so we can have an educated citizenry not just to ensure that the republic survives, but that it thrives.”

A version of this article appeared in the February 20, 2002 edition of Education Week as Concentration on Reading, Math Troubles Social Studies Educators

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