Absence Of History, Social Studies Requirements In US Education System Causes Concern

Many have expressed concern that there is no federal requirement that students learn about history.
By @katierucke |
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    (Photo/Chris Chan via Flickr)

    (Photo/Chris Chan via Flickr)

    Creating universal education standards may have been President Barack Obama’s intent when he and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan created the Common Core K-12 educational curriculum in 2009. But as education officials have begun to slowly integrate the program into private, public and home-schooled children in about 46 states so far, many education professionals are wondering why there is no social studies or history requirement.

    Though some blame social studies teachers for a lack of history requirements — calling a bulk of social studies teachers underqualified — others say the reason the U.S. doesn’t have any history requirements is because Americans don’t always agree on what actually happened in American history.

    Based on international standards, Common Core “is a state-led effort that established a single set of clear educational standards for kindergarten through 12th grade in English language arts and mathematics that states voluntarily adopt.”

    Though the program has been applauded by some education professionals for its focus on educating students, not just prepping them for a test, one concern many have had with the standards relates to a lack of emphasis on U.S. and world history.

    While the absence of a social studies requirement doesn’t mean that schools can’t incorporate their own social studies standards and requirements in order for a student to graduate, many have expressed concern that there is no federal requirement that students learn about history.

    In fact, the “history” requirements in the Common Core are largely categorized under the English requirements, and include reading America’s founding documents such as the Gettysburg Address and the Bill of Rights.

    Although some call the incorporation of historical documents into English classes a good first step, the historical documents, court cases, and other historically-based informational texts are only required to be presented to students as examples of writing. In other words, the teacher technically doesn’t have to provide context or explanation in many circumstances regarding the historical significance of the language used or the message that someone was trying to get across — they can simply analyze the word choice and use of the English language in the documents.

    Another concern with the absence of social studies standards is that there is no requirement that any history be taught to students in grades K-5, as the first Common Core requirements related to history begin in sixth grade.


    American history as an English lesson

    According to the program’s website, the new Common Core standards were designed to ensure that there is a one-size-fits-all program that will universally educate children in math and English in a way that prepares them to enter any two or four-year college program or the workforce. However, the curriculum does not dictate how a teacher or school must teach the subject to students.

    “The standards are clear and concise to ensure that parents, teachers, and students have a clear understanding of the expectations in reading, writing, speaking and listening, language and mathematics in school,” the website states, adding that “The federal government was not involved in the development of the standards. Local teachers, principals, and superintendents lead the implementation of the Common Core.”

    Talking to USA Today in 2012, David Coleman, one of the authors for the Common Core standards, said that with the curriculum’s implementation, there would be “a major shift,” that involved requiring schools to teach more history, arts and science.

    However, just like Coleman told reporters nearly two years ago, those subjects are being incorporated into the classroom through traditional subjects such as English and reading classes.

    One concern some education professionals and advocates have had with teaching history in English classes is that some classical literature in English classes had to be removed from the curriculum in order to make room for the historical texts. Another concern is that history class has just become another English class.

    David Riesenfeld is a history teacher at Robert F. Wagner Jr. Secondary School for Art and Technology in Long Island City, N.Y., who has been using the standards since 2010. Riesenfeld said the new standards have “pretty significantly pushed me to think about how much I cover” each school year, explaining that the standards require more in-depth teaching in just a few areas than an overall history lesson.

    Riesenfeld added that the standards are forcing him to teach students in his 10th-grade world history class to read and write about a handful of “significant topics” in world history, but in more of an analytical approach, which he says is more commonly found in an English class.

    “In effect, they’re learning how to use materials rather than just answer question a, b, c and d,” he said, explaining that he sometimes spends an entire class period breaking down a single paragraph.

    He continued on saying that his history students often look and sound as if they’re in an English class, instead of a history class, and as a result “What they’re starting to do is begin to think, ‘Well, he’s really not going to give me the answer, so I’ve really got to figure out what’s going on here.’ ”


    Misdirected blame

    Though some education professionals have applauded the new Common Core curriculum because it “offer(s) students the ability to think and persuade and communicate” rather than just fill in blanks on standardized tests, there are some concerns that the reason there aren’t any social studies standards is because of the teachers themselves.

    According to Department of Education studies, history and social science teachers are the least likely of all education professionals to hold an advanced degree in their subject, and as Merry E. Wiesner-Hawks, distinguished professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee said, about half of all history teachers — at least in Wisconsin — are primarily employed as coaches.

    Beth Anderson is a history teacher at El Toro High School in Lake Forest, Calif., and an avowed fan of the Common Core standards, which the state adopted in 2010. During the American Historical Association’s annual meeting earlier this month, Anderson said the program is “infinitely better than what we’ve been working with, but I’m concerned we’re in a honeymoon period over the standards.”

    Anderson continued, saying that while her school used to receive Teaching American History grants in order to help educate and train U.S. history teachers, she said that unfortunately the program no longer exists due to federal budget cuts. And now her district relies on the California Literacy and Reading Project to train teachers in the Common Core. But as Anderson points out, that curriculum does not specifically addresses historical concerns.

    “The elephant in the room is that there are a lot of teachers who can’t do this stuff themselves,” Anderson said. “They can’t meet the Common Core standards, so how are they going to teach them?”

    But as conservative columnist Terrence Moore pointed out in a post from earlier this week, if anyone is to blame for the lack of historical learning it shouldn’t be the teachers — it’s the authors of the Common Core curriculum.

    Analyzing the Common Core’s English standards where the historical texts can be found, Moore wrote that in middle school, American students must read the Preamble and First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, but it’s not until junior and senior year in high school that students are expected to read the Bill of Rights.

    Under the current requirements, students will not be required to read the Constitution in its entirety or any of the remaining 17 Amendments.

    “Unfortunately, at the moment most state legislators simply see the words ‘Constitution,’ ‘Bill of Rights,’ ‘History/Social Studies,’ and ‘English Language Arts,’ and are satisfied,” Moore said.

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