District-level coordinators who oversee social studies curriculum find themselves in the midst of waters that have become increasingly turbulent, given the growing focus on accountability. Not only are new effectiveness measures being implemented in states to evaluate schools and leaders, but social studies teachers find their long-neglected courses finally reaching the radar of accountability. Unveiling the richness of the humanities remains a welcome challenge for coordinators who stand squarely in waters whose undertow once kept social studies submerged from plain view.
For far too long, a rich understanding of historical perspectives and the knowledge of events leading up to significant historical moments have been undervalued in the educational landscape. This is not merely an outcropping of educational policy; it is an extension of the attitudes developed by teachers in light of the disproportionate focus on reading and mathematics under the No Child Left Behind Act. In spite of policy changes, district-level administrators must continue systemically to confront attitudes regarding social studies during this era of accountability.
One of the most glaring aspects of this legacy of neglect, brought to light by an influx of data into our schools, has been the disparity between the high level of student test scores in reading and the mediocre results in social studies. In some instances, we found a 20 percent to 30 percent difference in student performance in the two subjects. This prompts the question: Why are our students able to perform in reading, but unable to apply those skills to social studies?
What lessons can be drawn from the murder of Emmett Till when we study the Trayvon Martin case?"
As the social studies coordinator for a district of 57 schools, I have been addressing this issue from a number of angles. As we scrutinize the quality of the social studies curriculum, we must also remind our teachers to provide our students with historical framing. Most recently, as the 50th anniversary of the civil rights march on Washington approached, I communicated the need for our teachers to provide learning opportunities for students around this pivotal moment in American history. This event does not appear in our state’s U.S. history standards, yet it was a key moment that helped lead to the passage of the Voting Rights Act—landmark legislation that does appear in our state’s performance standards for U.S. history.
In addition, the context of the civil rights period, with its emphasis on individual freedoms and jobs, provides a backdrop for the America of today, in which students grapple with equity issues and social injustice inside and outside of school. Making these connections for students can drive their interest in subject matter—for example, what lessons can we draw from the murder of Emmett Till when we study the Trayvon Martin case?
Several overarching questions guide my strategic planning of professional development, instructional support, and ongoing dialogue in departmental meetings: What gaps exist in the curriculum that could provide opportunities for teachers to connect social studies content to current events? How do I foster that type of innovation during collaborative planning or professional-learning sessions and provide instructional support? How do I leverage a critical analysis of the curriculum with a sense of professional accountability in the classroom?
I now realize that my efforts to increase student achievement in social studies must acknowledge the necessity of making implicit connections between the work of reading teachers and the work of social studies teachers. Like reading teachers, social studies teachers must possess an abundance of pedagogical and content knowledge, while also navigating the attitudes and assumptions students bring into the classroom.
At times, this could involve working with principals to assess grade-level strengths, developing professional learning, or observing and providing critical feedback to teachers. Embedded in that feedback should be specific strategies to move educators toward the types of social studies instruction that we envision for all our classrooms.
As a result of our efforts to push forward with initiatives that address teacher planning, collaboration, and practice, we have seen impressive gains in student achievement on state standardized assessments. Most notably, we have seen a significant rise in student test scores over a five-year span, including a 23 percentage point increase in U.S. history at the high school level; a 43 percentage point increase in 6th grade social studies; a 53 percentage point increase in 7th grade social studies; and a 24 percentage point increase in 8th grade Georgia studies. Ultimately, our journey is a story of turbulence, time constraints, and the interplay of theory and practice to attain success in the face of overwhelming odds.
A version of this article appeared in the October 16, 2013 edition of Education Week as Easing Social Studies Through Turbulent Times