The State Education Department has not yet released the proposed new Common Core standards for English Language Arts, which includes “Literacy in History/Social Studies.” Several previous posts have explored the implications for state and local history in our state.
1. Perhaps the best place to gain some foresight as to how the Common Core may affect New York is to look at California, which went through the adoption process a couple of years ago. Their Department of Education has a useful resource page and you can read the actual standard, California’s Common Core Standards for English Language Arts and Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science and Technical Subjects. [pdf]. You can also read about the adoption process.
The History-Social Science Content Standards for California Public Schools [pdf] are also available on the Department of Education website. These standards, comparable to New York’s social studies curriculum standards, date from 1998 and are still in force. Exactly how they will relate to the new Common Core Standards remains to be seen.
But the best place to look for the California experience is The California History-Social Science Project, a cooperative project involving several University of California campuses which works closely with teachers on history, social studies, and particularly these days, implementation of the common core. The best place to begin is the spring 2012 issue of their magazine, The Source, devoted to The Common Core: Literacy in History. The lead article by Executive Director Nancy McTygue, decries the marginalization of history and social studies. “Why would American schools suddenly stop asking students how to think critically, argue persuasively, and analyze competing points of view?,” she asks. But she sees hope in “the Common Core’s emphasis on expository text, its mention of specific historical documents, and the specific inclusion of a section dedicated to developing literacy in history and social studies.” The project’s program coordinator, Letty Kraus, has an essay that sees potential for building on “historical reading, thinking, and writing skills.” The project’s coordinator, Shennan Hutton, entitled her article “The Common Core for History — No Fear!,” urging teachers to move past apprehension and find ways to cope.
Also worth looking at is the project’s latest initiative, History Blueprint: The Civil War– A Common Core Program. Curriculum, Assessments, Student Literacy and Teacher Professional Development [pdf].
2. The May 2012 issue of the American Historical Association news magazine Perspectives has a section on “Possibilities of Pedagogy” with essays on issues relating to teaching history/social studies. Some discuss the California experience. Karen Halttunen, professor of history at the University of Southern California, notes that federal initiatives such as “No Child Left Behind” which focused on language arts and math at the expense of history had meant that “instructional time devoted to history has dropped dramatically during the last decade,” a process that adoption of the Common Core will intensify. Bruce VanSledright, Kimberly Reddy and Brie Walsh from the University of Maryland, also point to No Child Left Behind for “the deprioritization of history education” but also cite lack of teacher preparation and relaxation of testing requirements. Lisa Hutton, Tim Keirn and Dave Neumann from the University of California are more hopeful: history educators are emphasizing critical thinking skills these days and development of those skills may dovetail with the Common Core
3. An education/advocacy group called Common Core (not related to the standards by the same name), has issued a report on Learning Less: Public School Teachers Describe a Narrowing Curriculum [pdf] asserting that history/social studies as well as art, music, and other topics are receiving less and less classroom time because of the overemphasis on reading, math, and science. Another report, Why We’re Behind: What Other Nations Teach Their Students But We Don’t [pdf] says that nations to which the U.S. education system is often compared unfavorably because their students score better in math and science, also teach a broad range of liberal arts. The group contends that education should be organized around core academic subjects such as history, science and the arts rather than narrowly defined “21st century skills” focused heavily on readiness for college or work and careers [link]. An open letter signed by 34 prominent educators says that students need to be educated to become “knowledgeable” as well as “skilled.”
4. The National History Education Clearinghouse published a roundtable on What Do the Common Core Standards Mean for History Teaching and Learning? Six educators contributed essays. The messages are decidedly mixed. Susan Brown, Assistant Professor of History at Ball State College said that “if we can move past the fact that history has once again been afforded second-class status and barely emerges as part of a ‘college and career readiness’ curriculum, we might use the Common Core to our advantage” by integrating study historical documents. Stephen Lazar, who teaches at the Academy for Young Writers in Brooklyn, says he shares his colleagues’ concern that “the new standards are a Trojan Horse for further standardized testing, narrowed curriculum, and hierarchical control of what happens in the classroom” but thinks they can be turned to advantage. For instance, “if implemented correctly, it will no longer be enough for students to be able to list the four causes of World War I. Rather, to meet the Common Core reading standards, students will need to construct their own interpretations of these events from a range of perspectives.”
Four insights emerge from all this material:
*The teaching of social studies and history in public schools has been on the wane for several years.
* Including history/social studies as a sub-part of English Language Arts in the Common Core standards rather than as an independent standard indicates continuing relegation of history/social studies to second class status in the schools.
* There may be an upside, but it will involve linking social studies and history to student literacy and critical thinking skills.
*At the same time, we need to keep pushing for inclusion of teaching and study of solid history, which transcends literacy and critical thinking skills.