Noelia Rivera-Calderón, Law & Public Policy Scholar, JD Anticipated May 2019
As a former middle school teacher, I can’t resist starting with a little pop quiz:
- In which core school subject can you learn to distinguish between fact and opinion, analyze international relations, practice media literacy and source analysis, understand differing points of view and bias, consider how history has impacted race relations, and be trained to become civically and politically involved?
- Which core school subject (not counting the “non-core,” but still important, classes of art, music, etc.) has been substantially de-prioritized by schools nationwide in the wake of both the Bush era’s No Child Left Behind and the Obama era’s Race to the Top and Common Core State Standards initiatives?
If you answered Social Studies to both (which you should have if you read the title of this post), you are correct. And I hope you’re also among the one-third of Americans that can name the three branches of government. And the one-fifth of Americans who know that the First Amendment protects freedom of religion. And the eight percent of U.S. high school seniors who can correctly identify slavery as the central cause of the Civil War.
In the national push to improve educational outcomes that resulted in No Child Left Behind, English and Math were emphasized above all, and relentlessly evaluated with standardized testing. In response, schools naturally restructured their teaching to emphasize what was going to be tested. More time for Math and English meant not only less time for electives, but also less time for the core subjects of Science and Social Studies. Then, with the growing realization that the U.S. was also lagging behind other countries in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM), Science was increasingly added to the roster of standardized tests.
The more recent Common Core State Standards, which are intended to encourage consistent and rigorous instruction leading to college and career readiness, only cover English and Math. All of the above initiatives have led schools to de-prioritize Social Studies. In Pennsylvania, for example, Social Studies remains the sole core subject without a mandated standardized test—which I note only because standardized tests can be viewed as a measure of a school subject’s importance to policymakers. Nationwide, more than a third of schools decreased Social Studies class time in response to No Child Left Behind.
The effect of this de-prioritization is greater than the attention-grabbing headlines about how little we know about history and government (which of course are also problems). The big picture is that the national narrative has shifted: Social Studies Education is no longer seen as important, but as an extra, an indulgence. That means that, increasingly, Facebook takes the place of classroom discussions of current events and important national discussions. More often, there is no teacher whose job it is to guide students in source analysis and help provide context for national trends—there is a lot of fake news, but no one to teach students how to identify it. And now that we know the substantial impact that fake news had on the 2016 election—for both Democrats and Republicans—how can we minimize the importance of the Social Studies Education that could have mitigated its effects?
Social Studies Education addresses a number of fundamentals: knowledge of the nation’s history, awareness of world affairs and geography, an understanding of economics, and, above all, the development of an informed and involved citizenry. But more than that, Social Studies Education exists to help students answer the fundamental questions of who they are and how they got here, in the context of who we all are and how we all got here. It is both a window and a mirror: a tool to understand the world through its (global) and your (personal) history, and a tool for recognizing how you fit into the larger community through civic engagement.
The quality and effectiveness of existing Social Studies Education is an issue all on its own, but it is further compounded without a clear local, state, and national message that the subject is as important as English, Math, and Science. If Common Core Standards are what policymakers agree on at the moment, let’s have the difficult national discussions about what standards for Social Studies should look like. If we are concerned about the civic engagement gap affecting marginalized youth, schools must be provided with resources that enable them to focus on civics education and not solely on Math and English. If we are concerned about the influence of fake news on civic discourse and effective democracy, let’s make one of our approaches increased media literacy education, which is a natural fit for Social Studies classrooms. And, as I hear so often from so many, if we are concerned with increasing political and social polarization in the U.S., we must provide significant time for students to grapple with issues of multiperspectivity, fact, opinion, and bias.
De-prioritizing Social Studies Education was a huge mistake, but it’s not too late to renew its place in the core curriculum. Social Studies should be added to the Common Core State Standards, and to the standards and testing used by states that do not rely on Common Core. For the future, while Common Core and standardized testing may fall out of favor, this core subject should remain.