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New Social Studies Framework Needs Improvement

Most public discussion of the new Common Core standards have focused on math and reading, the subjects where state tests are the first to change. But the state has also quietly been crafting new social studies curriculum, and asking educators for feedback on its draft of a new a new 9-12 Social Studies Curriculum Framework (henceforth referred to as “Framework”). With the deadline to submit feedback coming this week, I was happy to weigh in because in my view, while the state’s plans in some ways represent a step forward, they also fall into longstanding habits that have not been conducive to strong social studies teaching and learning.

The new curriculum reflects two significant shifts. Whereas the old framework was essentially a series of topics, the new framework focuses on what the state calls “Key Ideas” and “Understandings,” as well as adding the Common Core Literacy Standards and what the state calls “Social Studies Practices,” which reflect the key skills in our discipline.

On the Framework’s opening page, there are a list of objectives that I found refreshing and of which I am very supportive. According to the document, the purpose of social studies “is to help young people develop the ability to make informed and reasoned decisions for the public good as citizens of a culturally diverse, democratic society in an interdependent world.” Toward that end, the Framework claims to allow “students to develop an understanding of concepts and key ideas driven by case studies, analysis of primary and secondary source documents, and an examination of patterns of events in history,” and teachers “to have increased decision‐making power about how to teach and illustrate conceptual understandings and key ideas to promote student understanding.” On those three points rests the entirety of the work I do with curriculum, teachers, and students. Count me in!

A little of the substance that follows this promising introduction does take steps forward toward indicating what students should be able to do in high school social studies courses. Both the Common Core standards, which I’ve written about elsewhere, and the conception and inclusion of the Social Studies Practices, are significant advancements from previous state guidelines which only focused on content knowledge.

However, the extended list of 59 Key Ideas and the multitude of Understandings serve to completely undermine those efforts I have three main concerns, as well as suggestions to address these concerns.

First, a certain interpretation of history is established through the “Key Ideas” which is meant to be transferred to students, as opposed to a series of questions being posted to lead to the inquiry necessary to demonstrate most of the Common Core standards such as argument (Writing 1), comparing texts with different views (Reading 9), and all the Practices. This static approach to historical content assumes we know what matters about the past and simply need to transfer it to students, rather than acknowledging that social studies is a contested field of knowledge, in which interpretations of the past are continually questioned and reevaluated.

Second, in grades 9-11, there is no consideration of why this history matters today. As a result, the Framework includes no way for students to achieve the stated goal of social studies to “help young people develop the ability to make informed and reasoned decisions for the public good as citizens of a culturally diverse, democratic society in an interdependent world.”

To address these past two concerns, the Framework should be shifted from answers to questions that would demand actual inquiry, thinking, rigor, and decision-making. For example, the current Framework demands that 11th-graders know that “the success of the revolution challenged Americans to establish a system of government that would provide for stability, while beginning to fulfill the promise of the ideals outlined in the Declaration of Independence.” This assumes that the Constitution provided stability, an idea the Civil War challenges, and that it was a step on the road to certain ideals, despite its protection of slavery and the slave trade. It also fails to look at the Constitution in the present day.

Instead of starting with the answer, it would be better if we started with questions: “To what extent did the Constitution succeed in fulfilling its stated goals in the Preamble? To what extent did the Constitution fulfill the promises of the Declaration of Independence? How well does it still work today? How might it change to work better?” The Gilder Lehrman Foundation has a much longer list of similarly provocative and essential questions for U.S. history that might serve as a model.

Third, and most importantly, there are too many ideas and understandings to do well in the given courses, and every single one of them is mandated. It takes time to help “students to develop an understanding of concepts and key ideas driven by case studies, analysis of primary and secondary source documents.” It takes about six weeks for my students to come to the required understandings of the Constitution, while simultaneous developing core skills and practices. However, the Key Idea of the Constitution is only one of 14. I would need at least 84 weeks to do this curriculum justice, but I only have 40. The senior year curriculum is even more daunting, with 10 Key Ideas for government and 15 for economics. But each of these classes last only for a semester, or 20 weeks.

Rather than removing understandings from the list, however, I would rather see a model that, as the Framework claims it wants to do, explicitly empowers districts and teachers to make choices. I would suggest the state consider the International Baccalaureate model. In that curriculum, there are a small number of prescribed subjects that take up about a third of the course, in combination with a longer menu of options for the rest of the course. The IB history exam models how students could be assessed. The exam includes a large number of questions, and students choose to answer a few questions on a number of different subjects.

It is my hope that the State Education Department hears similar feedback from teachers across the state, and that these changes are implemented before the new curriculum takes effect. I hope those who agree with my critiques will take the time to share their input in the coming weeks.

If you share my concerns, you can find the proposed draft, fill out the state’s feedback survey (due Friday night), sign a petition, and read more critiques of the curriculum here. Maybe together we can transform a stumbling block into a stepping stone.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.

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