Specialists Weigh Common Social Studies Standards

By Catherine Gewertz — May 18, 2011 8 min read
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Feeling that social studies has been sidelined by a test-driven focus on math and English/language arts, subject-matter specialists from more than a dozen states met last week with representatives of content-area groups to brainstorm ways to improve academic standards in that subject.

The two-day gathering in Charlotte, N.C., is the third convened in the last year and a half as states and social studies groups seek to re-establish the prominent role they feel their disciplines deserve in classroom. Social studies specialists from 18 states and officials of 15 social studies organizations have been taking part in the talks.

Organizers of the effort refer to it as work on “common state standards in social studies,” but participants’ discussions are not “predetermined” to produce a set of standards for state adoption, said Kathleen Swan, an associate professor of curriculum and instruction at the University of Kentucky’s college of education, who is organizing the discussions.

While the talks might produce model standards, they are primarily geared toward developing resources states can share, such as a set of guidelines or core principles, and serving as a forum for states and content-area groups to discuss improving states’ own standards, she said.

“It’s more an effort of people talking about how they can make their own states’ [standards] better by working together,” Ms. Swan said. “If we end up converging in a way that makes sense for a common set of standards, then that’s where we converge.”

The conversations have been unfolding through a social studies group within the Council of Chief State School Officers. It’s one of the CCSSO “collaboratives” that serve as forums for representatives of states to discuss issues in specific topic areas, including assessment, special education, mathematics, and career and technical education.

A Different Path

Talking About Standards

Social studies specialists from 18 states and representatives from 15 content-related organizations have been discussing ways to help states improve their social studies standards, including possible development of a common set of state standards.

North Carolina
South Carolina
West Virginia

American Association of Geographers
American Bar Association
American Historical Association
Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools
Center for Civic Education
Constitutional Rights Foundation/USA
Constitutional Rights Foundation/Chicago
Council for Economic Education
National Council for Geographic Education
National Council for History Education
National Council for the Social Studies
National Geographic Society
National History Day
Street Law, Inc.
World History Association

Sources: National Council for the Social Studies, Council of Chief State School Officers

But while the social studies collaborative has been the forum for the discussions, the CCSSO is not working to create an initiative for common social studies standards, said Chris Minnich, who oversees the CCSSO’s collaboratives. The CCSSO and the National Governors Association organized states in 2009 in the Common Core State Standards Initiative, which produced a set of math and English/language arts standards that have now been adopted by 44 states and the District of Columbia.

“Our board has been very clear that they’re not interested in leading the social studies work in the same way we’ve led the common core in math and English/language arts,” said Mr. Minnich. “We’re hopeful that states working together can write social studies standards as they would like to. Some states are interested in upgrading their standards, and that is what we are interested in helping support. We are not part of the development as we were with the common standards [in math and English/language arts].”

To spearhead the common-standards work in English and math two years ago, the education chiefs and governors of nearly every state signed memorandums of agreement pledging to support the initiative, Mr. Minnich noted, something that has not been done with the social studies work. A spokeswoman for the NGA said that organization is not involved in the new social studies work.

Social studies groups had wanted their subject to be part of the common-standards work in 2009, but the CCSSO and the NGA declined, choosing instead to focus on only two core subjects, Mr. Minnich said. Math and English/language arts were a “logical place to start,” in recognition of the size of the undertaking and limited resources, as well as “where most of the accountability in schools” is located, he said.

Others in the field have speculated that the potential controversy of social studies standards offered another reason to restrict that initiative to math and literacy.

The CCSSO’s board wants to stay focused on fully implementing the math and English/language arts standards, Mr. Minnich said, “and there is still a lot of work to do to make sure the standards are translated into classrooms across the United States.”

Sensitive Topic

The creation of social studies standards, common or otherwise, has often touched off controversy. Recent battles over standards content in Texas and North Carolina have grabbed headlines, and a set of voluntary national history standards commissioned by the National Endowment for the Humanities in the early 1990s sparked opposition that derailed the project. (“Two Months and Counting: Naming Of Standards Panel Behind Schedule,” Nov. 2, 1994; “Controversy Predicted Over N.Y. Social-Studies Framework,” June 21, 1996; and “History Center Shares New Set Of Standards,” April 10, 1996.)

Christopher T. Cross, a former assistant U.S. education secretary who was the president of the Council for Basic Education when that group assembled two panels in 1995 to revise the national history standards, had some advice for those working on the new project.

“I would be very cautious about moving forward with common standards in this field,” he said. “It’s a field that is subject to a lot of political scrutiny.”

If he were advising the group, he would urge it to design documents that capture the key ideas of the field, steering clear of more detailed knowledge requirements, he said.

1990s Controversy: History Standards

Read Education Week’s coverage of the voluntary national history standards funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities and the U.S. Department of Education in the 1990s:

“History Center Shares New Set of Standards,” (April 10, 1996)

“History Standards: Round Two,” (April 10, 1996)

“A Short History of the Standards,” (November 15, 1995)

“Revise History Standards, Two Panels Advise,” (October 18, 1995)

“Two Independent Panels to Review Controversial U.S., World History Standards,” (June 21, 1995)

“Social Studies Teachers Get a 1st Look At National Standards for Students,” (November 30, 1994)

“2 New Volumes of Standards for History Unveiled,” (November 16, 1994)

“Panel Unveils Standards for U.S. History,” (Nov 2, 1994)

“When you get down to that grain size, you’re going to do nothing but invite the kind of scrutiny that complicated things last time,” Mr. Cross said. “If you develop them at a higher level, with key principles, perhaps, then they’re more apt to get more general support than if you try and cover everything under the sun.”

Such broad guidelines can still be useful to educators, Mr. Cross said, by serving as a “skeleton” on which they can create more detailed plans that reflect their own states’ perspectives on the social studies.

An early catalyst of the current shared work on social studies standards, Ms. Swan of the University of Kentucky said, was the required testing in reading and math under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, which sparked concern that other subjects are shortchanged as states face consequences for poor achievement in the two tested subjects.

The combination of recent budget crunches that led to cutbacks in nontested areas; federal officials’ rhetoric about the importance of science, technology, engineering, and math, known as the STEM subjects; and the exclusion of social studies from the common-core-standards movement has made social studies teachers feel their subjects have been “marginalized,” Ms. Swan said.

The current talks came together “synergistically,” she said, as the field began asking how social sciences could regain a strong place in classrooms. Those conversations had been unfolding among state social studies specialists at the meetings of the CCSSO social studies collaborative, and among representatives of content-area groups associated with the National Council of the Social Studies. The NCSS—an umbrella group for teachers of social studies disciplines, including history, civics, geography, and economics—and 14 groups from related disciplines have now joined state specialists in discussions.

So far, the group has agreed on a one-sentence definition of K-12 social studies: “The social studies is an interdisciplinary exploration of the social sciences and humanities, including civics, history, economics, and geography, in order to develop responsible, informed, and engaged citizens and to foster civic, global, historical, geographic, and economic literacy.”

The definition “acknowledges the importance of the individual disciplines, affirms how and why they are connected,” and includes the skills widely referred to as “21st-century skills,” according to a statement on the NCSS website. Known by many descriptors, those skills include such abilities as global awareness, critical thinking, and collaboration.

Consensus Challenging

Going beyond a definition to guidelines or standards quickly gets difficult as states’ and disciplines’ differing priorities and viewpoints come into play, Ms. Swan said.

“The issues are thorny,” she said. “What does it mean to be a social studies student in Nebraska versus a social studies student in South Carolina? How we do think about historical thinking in the context of the interdisciplinary foundation of the social studies? Those aren’t easy questions historically, and there are different perspectives.”

Given the sensitivities involved, making sure groups from the various social studies disciplines are at the table to discuss standards is important, said Fritz Fischer, who, as the chairman of the National Council for History Education, is participating in the conversations.

“It’s important that the groups representing the different disciplines work together to create the best possible guidelines for teaching and learning in our disciplines,” said Mr. Fischer, a professor of history and history education at the University of Northern Colorado.

Some states are hoping that the group produces standards in time to use in their own scheduled revisions.

In the wake of a 2009 law requiring Kentucky to revise all its standards by the end of 2010, that state, in February of last year, adopted the common standards in math and English/language arts—the first state to do so. It is looking to the collaborative effort for help on social studies.

“We are so excited about this work,” said Felicia C. Smith, an associate commissioner of education in Kentucky. “We’re hoping that by this time next year, we’ll have social studies standards. We’ve communicated our timeline and the need to move ahead.”

Others presume a far slower timeline.

“I doubt they’ll come out with anything real soon,” said a social studies consultant who is monitoring the talks but not participating, and asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the work. “We are supposed to begin our standards review in the fall, and we’re moving ahead with our own process.”

A version of this article appeared in the May 25, 2011 edition of Education Week as Social Studies Fresh Frontier for Standards


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