Social Studies Curriculum: Time to Speak Up


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If you are interested in strengthening the teaching of New York State and local history in New York’s schools, now is the time to speak up.

A recent post by Peter Feinman informed us that the State Education Department is now working on revision of the state social studies standards. The current standards, last revised several years ago, are in need of revision and updating.

The work, already under way, involves bringing the standards in line with the “Common Core Standards,” They focus on literacy and math and relegate “History/Social Studies” to a section under “English Language Arts”.

General information on the process is available from the Education Department’s web site. Lawrence Paska, Coordinator, Office of Curriculum and Instruction at the Department, is heading the effort. There is an advisory committee that includes several historians but apparently no one with expertise in New York State and local history.

It is not clear yet how this will unfold, but there is something important at stake for New York’s state and local history.

New York should be a leader in raising the visibility of social studies, infusing solid history into the social studies curriculum, and teaching historical thinking.
Most important, we should expand and strengthen the status of New York State history in the New York State social studies curriculum.

New York does better than most states with history and civics education. The highly regarded Thomas B. Fordham Institute gives us an A-minus for “clear commitment to serious history education” in its 2011 report The State of U.S. History Standards.

We used to have a full year of study of New York history at the seventh grade level. But that was dropped years ago. In effect, New York history got demoted.

The current standards are unkind to New York’s history. Students graduate from high school in New York state knowing little about the history of their own state.

New York’s rich history. New York’s history is exceptionally rich. Professor Kenneth Jackson of Columbia University has a public presentation entitled “But it Happened in New York!” His point is that New York’s rich and vibrant history is sometimes slighted and that even New Yorkers do not realize our history-making role. In fact, much of the U.S. was shaped in New York. The New York-to-Montreal and Albany-to-Buffalo corridors are among the most important in the nation. We had the first permanent settlements in the North – New Amsterdam and Fort Orange. The most diverse colony and probably still the most diverse state. New York was the most important agricultural state for many years. First in manufacturing with such firms as IBM, GE, and Kodak. First in banking and finance (e.g., the Stock Exchange). First in tolerance (the nation’s first civil rights law, 1945, for instance.) First in social reform (founding of the NAACP in New York City, for example). A cultural leader since the earliest years of the state. First in war — battleground in Colonial wars, turning point of the Revolution, battleground in War of 1812, leading contributor of troops and material to Civil War, leader in industrial production in World War I and World War II. The USS Arizona, sunk at Pearl Harbor, and the USS Missouri, where the war ended, were both built in the Brooklyn Naval Yard.

New York history in the shadows. The current standards cover some state and community history in 4th grade guidelines, but 10-year-olds can’t be expected to develop in-depth understanding. Standards for grades 7 and 8 blend U.S. and New York history, and they are detailed and impressive in many ways.

But coverage of state history is very sparse.

There’s plenty of attention for some events, like the Erie Canal and the first New York State Constitution (which, appropriately, gets an entire section. Unit 4/heading II). But major parts of New York history are simply absent. The standards document has a column for “Connections” for each standard and objective, but few of these point to New York examples. New York’s leadership and pre-eminence in the nation, and the potential for our students to learn from it, are underrepresented.

Just a few examples:

3/I. BACKGROUND CAUSES OF THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION. Excellent coverage of the coming of the war, but nothing on New York, where the causes played out in a revealing way as New York reluctantly moved toward the revolutionary cause. General Philip Schuyler would be an excellent example.

3/IV. MILITARY AND POLITICAL ASPECTS OF THE REVOLUTION. In the “Connection” column one of the “Classroom ideas” is to “View a reenactment of a Revolutionary battle or engage a reenactment soldier” to speak about revolutionary life. An excellent suggestion. But teachers and students are not reminded that New York’s geographic location made it the most important state from a strategic standpoint, that the turning point of the Revolution occurred here (Saratoga, 1777), that New York City was occupied by the British for most of the war, or that there are numerous Revolutionary war sites in the state that students might visit (including the Saratoga Battlefield)

6/II. THE CIVIL WAR BREAKS OUT. A teacher looking for guidance here would not find such things as the fact that the first officer killed in the Civil War was a New Yorker; New York alone outproduced the entire Confederacy in key wartime goods; we contributed more soldiers, and sustained more casualties, than any other state; or that the most prominent critic of President Lincoln’s civil liberties policies (though an outstanding supporter of the war itself) was New York governor Horatio Seymour.

7/III. THE PROGRESSIVE MOVEMENT, 1900-1920: EFFORTS TO REFORM THE NEW SOCIETY. There are references to national leaders and events like Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft and Senator Robert LaFollette, but no mention of reformist Governor Theodore Roosevelt or Governor Charles Evans Hughes, a prominent progressive leader. There is specific reference to the Federal Reserve Act and the Graduated Income Tax, certainly important, but not to the New York State Public Service Commission law, a leading progressive achievement, or our leadership in labor policies (New York had the first state labor department, 1901) or pioneering industrial legislation after the Triangle Fire of 1911. There is a reference to fighting racial discrimination and formation of the NAACP, but no indication that it was formed in New York City (or later on that New York was the first state to pass a law prohibiting discrimination in employment, 1945)

Grade 8 Regents social studies exams (discontinued two years ago because of budget cuts) were also overwhelmingly about national rather than state topics.

The leading textbooks follow suit – they follow the curriculum and are essentially American History texts with a few New York inserts. An example is America: History of Our Nation, published by Prentice Hall, an excellent, informative, and inviting book. Its “New York” edition has the term “New York” above — but not part of — the title. Each unit is tied to the New York Social Studies curriculum. Several chapters have a very short “Focus on New York History” as part of the “Quick Study Guide” with short examples of New York people and events. But they are akin to afterthoughts, overshadowed by the rest of the text.
Students come away with only a scattered impression of New York’s history.

New York can do better than this.

We should showcase our history in our public schools. We owe it to our state, and to its future citizens, to give students a chance to learn about their own state.
The best way to do that would be to provide for a full year of study of New York State history at the middle or secondary school levels.

An alternative would be to substantially expand the coverage of New York history in the Grade 7-8 curriculum.

 

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Bruce Dearstyne

About Bruce Dearstyne

Dr. Bruce W. Dearstyne lives in Guilderland. Dearstyne is a former professor at the College of Information Studies, University of Maryland, where he is now an Adjunct Professor. Before joining the Maryland faculty, he held positions at the New York State Archives and the Office of State History. He is the author of The Spirit of New York: Sixteen Events That Changed History, forthcoming from SUNY Press early in 2015. He is also the author of Railroads and Railroad Regulation in New York State, 1900-1913 and joint author of New York: Yesterday and Today. He served as guest editor of a special issue of the journal Public Historian on “Strengthening the Management of State History: Issues, Perspectives, and Insights from New York” (August 2011). He also writes occasional essays on New York State history issues for the “Perspective” section of the Sunday Albany Times Union.

4 thoughts on “Social Studies Curriculum: Time to Speak Up

  1. Anonymous

    We’re living in a global world, and many or most students will spend their lives in some place far removed from where they grew up. School needs to prepare them for this reality.

    Reply
  2. Addie Harris

    I didn’t realize that a global world meant that we should stop teaching children about the place that they are currently living whether they choose to stay there permanently or not. How is ignorance a good thing? It is well documented that people protect things that they know about and destroy things that they don’t. So it is my responsibility to teach them about New York first.

    Reply
  3. Peter Evans

    My experience suggests that looking closely at New York State, for any time period, provides a a mirror or reflection of what was happening globally. Looking at local history has the advantage of providing “up close and real on the ground” experiences that we can see and touch. This approach has proven to engage students of all ages and learning levels.
    Peter Evans, Wayne County Historian

    Reply
  4. Louise Bernikow

    How to speak up? Please tell us. I’ve got my eye on the centennial of woman suffrage in NY State (2017- not far away-) and will campaign til the lights go out to get this critical story into the curriculum and its anniversary celebrated with due excitement.

    Reply

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