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New York approves new social studies curriculum guidelines, with Common Core influence

State policymakers have approved the first major overhaul of New York’s social studies curriculum outline in 15 years, capping a multi-year effort to do for social studies what the Common Core standards have done for math and English.

Proponents of the new social studies guidelines hope they will revitalize a subject they say has been shoved to the sidelines, first by federal testing rules, and more recently by the new standards, both of which focused on math and literacy.

But some worry that the impact of the guidelines could be limited, since the state will not release matching high school exams for several years, the state does not test younger students in social studies, and state officials are moving cautiously to avoid repeating mistakes that hobbled the rollout of the Common Core.

“The public backlash against everything associated with the Common Core makes the climate very, very difficult to advance another curriculum area,” said Steven Goldberg, chairman of an advisory panel that helped the state create the guidelines.

Still, supporters must push the state to put the new social studies framework into practice, Goldberg added, otherwise, “everything we worked for is for naught, and it’s a nice document that sits on a shelf.”

The new kindergarten-through-high-school roadmap, called the New York State Social Studies Framework, adds recent world events, groups historical topics into themes, and puts a Common Core-inspired emphasis on literacy and critical-thinking skills. Unlike the Common  Core standards, the framework spells out which information students should learn and in what order. State officials note that local districts retain control over how the framework is taught and the teaching materials used in classrooms.

Critics have argued that this lengthy list of topics clashes with the framework’s call for students to engage in more in-depth inquiries. Last month, the framework came under fire for including only one woman in its outline for a high school world history course.

More female historical figures were then added to the final version, the culmination of more than two years of feedback and revisions. At its full board meeting Tuesday, the state’s Board of Regents approved the framework — with the phrase “Common Core” dropped from its name.

As attention now turns to implementation, a major question is when and how the social studies Regents exams, the only state-mandated tests in that subject, will be revised to match the new framework.

For example, the framework calls for Global History and Geography, a two-year high school survey course of world history, to be divided into two separate courses. The related state test — currently the most-failed of the five Regents exams required for graduation — would then only cover material from the second course.

The Board of Regents did not vote on the course split or changes to the test this week.

The state has waited to begin revamping that test or the other social studies Regents exam, U.S. History and Government, until the framework was approved. Officials have previously said that revised exams could be ready by 2017. And members of the advisory panel said they were told that state staff members and educators would design the new tests, not outside vendors.

But uncertainty about those changes has troubled the framework’s supporters, who argue that new assessments will ultimately do more to spur classroom changes than the new guidelines. They worry that teachers will not heed the framework’s call for student-led investigations and high-level questioning unless the exams assess those skills, not just students’ factual knowledge.

“Until people see the assessment, it’s going to be very hard to know what changes they’re supposed to be implementing in the classroom,” said Katherine Gross, a teacher and the president of the Central New York Council for the Social Studies.

Others are concerned about the teaching materials that will accompany the new guidelines.

The state has promised to release a “field guide” later this year, which could include primary-source documents, model lessons, and instructional tips. In a letter sent last week, the state teachers union urged the state to let educators design those materials, including teachers of students with special needs. It also cautioned the state not to create “scripted lessons,” which has been a frequent criticism of the state-commissioned Common Core materials.

For its part, the state appears eager to avoid such attacks this time around.

At last month’s Board of Regents meeting, members asked for assurances that educators would embrace the new framework. In response, members of the advisory team solicited letters of support from the teachers union and statewide social studies groups, according to Goldberg, the advisory panel chairman. The panel also fielded probing questions about the framework from Regents members during a special question-and-answer session last month, Goldberg added.

“The idea was, we’re not going to screw this up,” he said.

Proponents of the new guidelines view them as an opportunity to reassert the significance of social studies, whose role in schools they say has been steadily diminished.

That began with the No Child Left Behind law, which required annual testing in subjects other than social studies, and continued when the state eliminated its own middle-school social studies tests a few years ago. More recently, the state proposed letting high school students who pursue a special type of diploma skip the Global History exam. And in February, the state declassified middle-school social studies as a “core subject” for teacher evaluation purposes, allowing those teachers to be rated partly on students’ performance in other subjects.

The outcome is that schools obsess over the subjects where students take high-stakes tests, and slight the other subjects, including social studies, said Brian Dowd, co-president of the Long Island Council for the Social Studies.

“Social studies is relegated to Friday afternoon at 3:15 or a movie about Native Americans before Thanksgiving,” he said.

He and other history buffs have called for the reinstatement of state social studies tests before high school, but most realize that is increasingly unlikely due to the state’s limited assessment funds and rising anti-test sentiment provoked by the new Common Core exams.

So some have latched onto the new social studies framework, despite quibbles they may have with its content or concerns about the future assessments, since it means a moment in the spotlight for their favored subject.

“The fact that the state is revising this framework,” said S.G. Grant, dean of the graduate education school at Binghamton University, “I think, is an implicit pledge that social studies still matters.”