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Standards Opinion

Content-Free Social Studies Standards

By Rick Hess — September 20, 2013 2 min read
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Earlier this week, on Constitution Day, a coalition of social studies organizations issued their “College, Career and Civic Life (C3) Framework for State Social Studies Standards.” One of the partner organizations was the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools co-chaired by Justice Sandra Day O’Connor and former Congressman Lee Hamilton. Now, the exercise had more than a little irony, given that the organizations went out of their way to ensure that these “social studies standards” make no mention of the U.S. Constitution--or other historical events, dates, or persons.

Susan Griffin, executive director of the National Council of Social Studies (NCSS), explained, “Many state standards in social studies are overwhelmed with lists of dates, places and names to memorize - information students quickly forget.” Instead, she said, the new framework would help states establish “fewer, higher, and clearer standards for instruction in civics, economics, geography, and history,” the standards emphasize “critical thinking, collaboration, and inquiry.” Without delving into what students should actually know, the new C3 framework, explains an accompanying fact sheet, “Intentionally envisions social studies instruction as an inquiry arc of interlocking and mutually reinforcing elements that speak to the intersection of ideas and learners.”

Will these new standards help? Checker Finn provides a useful analogy, likening it to the US/Russia agreement on Syrian chemical weapons. “I’m not suggesting that social studies kill people ... [but] both are termed “frameworks” and neither will do any good unless many other people do many other things that they are highly unlikely to do.”

This social studies framework is not explicitly part of the Common Core state standards, but it is a distant cousin. As the NCSS delicately explains, its “framework makes important, explicit connections to the Common Core State Standards in English Language Arts and Literacy in History/Social Studies” but it “was developed independent of the Common Core State Standards Initiative.”

While critical thinking and inquiry are good things, keep in mind that the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress exam in civics found that more than half of students scored “below basic.” Most college graduates can’t identify famous phrases from the Gettysburg Address or cite the protections of the Bill of Rights. If our “national experts” can’t bring themselves to come out and just say “Kids should know when the Civil War was” it’s not clear that “an inquiry arc of interlocking and mutually reinforcing elements” will help kids find out.

Would-be reformers all agree that “critical thinking” is important. The question that always seems to be forgotten is just what it is that students are going to think critically about.

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